Netflix Wants to Have Its Theatrical Exhibition Cake and Stream It too

Seeing films in theaters isn't for everyone, but it should be something everyone has access to.

Roma Alfonso Cuaron
Netflix

Keep your wigs on, but there was a kerfuffle on film twitter recently. Maybe you caught a whiff of it: something about the awards-geared Netflix originals and movie theaters. 

If you’re like me, you noticed a smattering of folks waxing their soap boxes and compulsively flag-planting in the sour hole that is the “cinema-going is dead” debate. And if you’re feeling like you’re missing a piece of the puzzle, you’re not alone. It may be fun to suss out original context from thrice-removed tweets but results tend to vary. So what was this scuffle about, exactly? Who are the parties involved, and what’s at stake?

In a very basic sense, the drama is another chapter in a well-worn war of attrition between theatrical distributors and the streaming giant. But, like most frights, the most recent iteration of the “Netflix vs. movie theaters” drama isn’t really a conflict about distribution, but about ideology. More specifically: about who gets to define whether and when it is or isn’t okay to watch a movie at home instead of in a theater.

The Kerfuffle

  • Roma will be one of the first Netflix original movies to get a limited theatrical run in advance of an online release. At three weeks, Roma represents Netflix’s longest pre-streaming release to date. 
  • Netflix, a company that lives and dies by the online access sword, disagrees.
  • One of the reasons this longstanding conflict has been cast back into the public eye is the presence of big-name, awards-attracting directors like Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen Brothers (whose Netflix Original, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs received a teeny tiny eight-day theatrical run ahead of its online release). The conflict doesn’t really have anything specific to do with Roma, Scruggs, or their respective directors. Though, anyone with a passing knowledge of the Coen’s disdain for the New Flesh that is streaming will delight in the irony of Scruggs’ “Meal Ticket” sequence.
  • Because Netflix’s distribution demands pose logistical and/or financial risks for movie theaters, many are refusing to exhibit, the consequence being a shortage of screens. Or, as the New York Times put it: “Netflix Put a Movie in Theatres, Good Luck Finding It.”

Why can’t Netflix and theatrical distributors get along?

If all of this is starting to sound familiar, you might be experiencing flashbacks to Netflix’s “sad situation for everyone involved” feud with the Cannes festival: French law mandates a 36-month waiting period between theatrical and streaming releases — and Netflix don’t play like that.

It’s a similar deal with Roma. Because Netflix balks at 90-day exclusive theatrical distribution, big chains like AMC and Cinemark are off the table. Cinemas, especially the big chains, are understandably hesitant to exhibit Netflix because truncated pre-stream theatrical runs are just not financially feasible. These limited run times are the same reason there’s hesitation around simultaneous release: there’s a lot of uncertainty when it comes to competing in real time with the allure of streaming and that isn’t a risk many theatrical distributors are willing and able to take.

If the limited runtime thing wasn’t tricky enough, some of the middling level and independent cinemas who did agree to exhibit Roma have bowed out under the weight of exhibition demands they understandably couldn’t cash (notably: an insistence on the pricy Dolby Atmos sound system). Ironically, if Netflix’s insistence on primo exhibition tech was intended “to keep its powerhouse directors happy,” this isn’t exactly working out in the case of Roma. To Cuarón’s dismay, the streaming giant’s refusal to comply with a 90-day exclusive theatrical window has meant that Roma (a film about Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico) is only playing in 40 theaters in the director’s home country.

Limited releases are not in themselves a bad thing. We need look no further than the surprise success of SprectreVision’s Mandy for an example of an odds-defying little-indie-that-could. But where Mandy’s exclusivity was an inescapable symptom of its small-fry status, the circumstances around Netflix’s theatrical exclusivity feel more…contrived.

How does this figure into the “cinematic experience” debate?

Because Netflix Being Netflix has artificially limited the number of opportunities to see Roma on the big screen, cinema-inclined folks have voiced their concerns. One of the louder refrains being: “if you haven’t seen Roma in theaters, you haven’t really seen it.” Never mind that seeing Roma theatrically is, by design, extremely fucking difficult depending on where you live.

It is tempting to get bogged down in the “Roma demands to be seen on the big screen” discourse swamp. But I worry that engaging in format debates distracts from what’s really going on here. Let’s be clear: seeing Roma on your laptop isn’t tantamount to movie crime. Like The Ringer says: the pained reaction to the death of FilmStruck is proof enough that “there’s the possibility of wonder and history at home, too.

Rest assured: arguments about movies needing specific exhibition contexts will wage as long as there is more than one way to watch a movie. What’s concerning about Netflix’s approach to cinematic exhibition is an apparent disinterest in giving people the ability to choose how they access films. That should furrow brows, no matter which side in the “cinematic experience” debate you stump for.

The issue isn’t just that the Netflix’s ideology of movie-watching positions cinematic exhibition as a luxury only accessible to a cultured few. It’s that Netflix’s motivation for exhibiting their films in theaters has shit all to do with giving regular people the choice to see films like Roma on the big screen. In this model, seeing a movie in a theatre is an opportunity, not an option

So…who wins here?

Depends if you think Netflix is right about the future of our relationship to movie theaters. 

Do you think having immediate access to films is more important than being able to see them in specific formats? Are theaters already elitist, exclusive spaces and Netflix is just calling it like it is? Should we just be grateful that Netflix is giving big-name directors a platform for movies that might not otherwise be widely seen?

For what it’s worth, I’ll play my hand. I care less about how folks consume movies than their ability to choose how they see movies. Netflix’s strategy seems to directly oppose this. And that’s why I’m taking this all so seriously. At this year’s Gotham Awards, Ethan Hawke talked about the “heavy burden” that falls to the arts in dark times. How folks who make and love art can “transcend minds and open hearts that are normally closed.” If you think that’s true, then I’d encourage you to take Netflix’s exhibition strategy seriously, too.

The main issue has, and continues to be, that Netflix wants exhibitors and audiences to surrender their ability to define for themselves what makes cinema cinema. And as Netflix continues to operate with the subtlety of a He-Man villain (quoth Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos: “If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine”), I think the rest of us should pay attention.

Burgeoning wine mom and talented napper. Secretly just three toddlers in a trenchcoat.