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‘Roma’ and Netflix: Why the Film’s Biggest Drama May Be Happening Off-Screen

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” as everyone knows by now, is the most acclaimed work of art in the history of mankind. Okay, I exaggerate. From the start, though, there’s been an aura surrounding this movie — a holy aesthetic halo. From the moment I saw it before the Venice Film Festival, I knew “Roma” would be hailed as a masterpiece (even though I didn’t share that feeling about it), and the M-word has in effect become part of its brand.

As someone who was knocked sideways by the silvery imagistic virtuosity and you-are-there-in-Mexico-City-in-1971 time-machine quality of “Roma,” and was touched by moments of its tale of a saintly housekeeper, yet still felt it to be an experience at once immersive and detached (that’s been true both times I’ve seen it), I have, on occasion, fantasized about joining a support group for those of us who are critical outliers on the movie. “Hi, my name is Owen, and I don’t think ‘Roma’ is all that.” But if you’re a critic, that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I don’t begrudge the film its extraordinary acclaim. I do feel, however, that its existence as a motion picture is now merging with the drama of how it’s being distributed — or not — by Netflix. Here’s how the “Roma” saga has begun to compete with what’s on screen.

Would “Roma” have seen the light of day without Netflix? On the face of it, that’s a weird question, because it’s not one that gets asked about other movies. The reason it’s out there about “Roma” is that the company has, to an extent, spun it that way. Viewed by various sectors of Hollywood as a force arrayed against the primacy of the theatrical experience, Netflix has essentially mounted the following argument, citing a number of its films (such as Paul Greengrass’s edgy terrorist drama “22 July”): “Stop griping! Why does it matter so much if you’re watching our movies at home? At least you get to see them! That’s because we’re backing films that other studios won’t.” The filmmakers themselves, happy to be making movies on their own terms at Netflix, have frequently echoed that sentiment.

But forgive me if I don’t entirely buy it, and there’s no better example to point to than “Roma.” Produced by Participant Media, it had a budget of $15 million (I’ve spoken to one studio head who, off the record, suspects that the budget was higher), and it’s worth noting that the deal Cuarón struck wasn’t merely about budget. It was about winning the right to an unusually extravagant shooting schedule, which allowed him to tinker endlessly, during the filming, with the movie’s visual design. I’m not privy to the details of that (or of what Netflix paid to distribute the film), but I do think that what’s being forged here is a kind of mythology: Netflix as the Savior of Movie Art. (No one else would give Martin Scorsese $125 million!)

Yet if you apply what we know about movie economics, does it make sense to say that Alfonso Cuarón, coming off the massively acclaimed and beloved hit — the global movie phenomenon — that was “Gravity” (domestic gross: $274 million; worldwide gross: $723 million; aesthetic and critical triumph: priceless), would have had any trouble finding a conventional home for his next project? Even if it was an unconventional black-and-white autobiographical tone poem set in Mexico City with subtitles? Cuarón clearly favored the distribution deal that Netflix offered, or he wouldn’t have taken it. But the notion that it would somehow be a pipe dream for the director of “Gravity” to win a major release for his all-time labor of love feels like a drastic overstatement. Especially when you consider the question…

What would the commercial trajectory of “Roma” have looked like without Netflix? Every week seems to bring another breathless headline about all the theaters Netflix is putting “Roma” into. More venues! More cities! More weeks! 70mm showings in half a dozen locales! The film’s most crucial release date, however, was still Friday, Dec. 14; that’s when it dropped on Netflix itself. And why does it feel as if adding theaters for “Roma” is like pulling teeth for Netflix? The movie, as it stands, is still playing on a limited enough number of screens that the amount of people who end up seeing it that way will prove relatively miniscule. (How many people will actually see it on Netflix? We won’t know, of course, because Netflix doesn’t release its viewer numbers.)

So indulge me for a moment. Enter my imaginary counterworld in which “Roma” actually gets distributed by a conventional movie studio. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that it’s Fox Searchlight. Yes, “Roma” is a small quiet film in a language other than English, with no actor in it who approaches the marquee visibility of an international movie star. Yet the extraordinary level of acclaim and excitement surrounding the movie has lent it a uniquely buzzy gotta-see-it prestige art-film-event factor. I can’t prove this, of course, but I believe that “Roma,” with passionate and proper handling, could easily have grossed $20 million in theaters. (That’s what “Like Water for Chocolate” made in 1993. In 2006, “Pan’s Labyrinth” grossed $37 million.) So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my hunch is correct. What difference would it make? Why does it matter if “Roma” became a phenomenon in theaters?

It matters because it’s a part of the cinema experience to feel that a movie is out there. I don’t believe that movies in theaters are about to go the way of the dodo bird, and I have always argued for the primacy of the movie-theater experience. That idea — the power of the big screen; the larger-than-life quality of movies; the religious potency of sharing a movie with an audience that becomes, in effect, a congregation — doesn’t need to be rehashed at length here.

Yet consider an additional, adjacent aspect of the theater experience. Movies play, in a sense, in the public square. Theaters are destinations that have meaning (I’m not just talking about boutique theaters; over the years, I have formed intense attachments to certain megaplexes). And when you know that a movie is out there, playing at a theater or (better yet) a number of them, it adds to its existential reality in the world. That’s part of what makes it a shared experience — and what makes a film at a theater into an advertisement for itself. Whereas when a movie gets “released,” but all that means is that it becomes available on a streaming service on such-and-such a Friday, the heightened quality of its presence in the world lessens. The movie is out there…and not out there. If it’s not high profile (or even if it is), it can seem like it’s gone into the Bermuda Triangle.

How will all of this effect the Academy Awards chances for “Roma”? “Roma” will undoubtedly be a player in the Oscar game, though maybe not in the way it would have had it received a full-scale theatrical release. For one thing, the Netflix factor isn’t doing the film any favors politically. Since the company’s business model (all movies at home! all the time!) threatens the essential paradigm of how people in Hollywood have existed for a century (making movies that create a mountain of revenue in theaters), there are glimmers of animus against it. A vote for “Roma” is, on some level, a vote for Netflix, and some may not want to cast that vote.

That phenomenon strikes me as petty. “Roma,” like any film up for the Oscars, should be judged on its own merits — on how people feel about it as a movie. But that, in a more elusive way, could wind up being influenced by the Netflix factor as well. The movies that win Oscars are the movies that Academy voters are choosing to symbolize the heart and soul of their industry. So the degree to which a movie gets out there, into the culture at large (even if it’s not a huge hit), matters. If “Roma” were being distributed and experienced the old-fashioned way, as the purest of cinematic spectacles, and if it became that rare phenomenon, an art-film-turned-mainstream-hit, there’s no doubt it would be perceived as being fully out there. As it stands, the film’s presence looms less concretely that it might have. It’s a movie that’s hovering above all other movies, shimmery and ethereal and a little abstract — like a masterpiece, but also like a ghost.

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