Netflix tiptoes into theaters, but demands secrecy

Anousha Sakoui

Netflix Inc. has an Oscar contender on its hands with “Roma,” a drama about a Mexico City family from Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuaron.

The company thought enough of the film to break with one of its foremost traditions: Netflix released “Roma” in theaters last week ahead of its online debut – anathema for the world’s biggest paid video-streaming service. But since then, the company hasn’t followed the typical playbook for promoting a likely Oscar winner.

This image released by Netflix shows Yalitza Aparicio, center, in a scene from the film "Roma," by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. The film has dominated the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, winning best film, best director and best cinematography. The film is Netflix’s most acclaimed release yet, and it’s widely expected to contend for best picture at the Academy Awards.

The film’s run in a handful of theaters went largely unremarked in the past week, and that was intentional. Netflix asked Comscore Inc. – the main company that gathers box-office data – not to monitor its impact.

“Netflix has made the decision to not participate in the sharing of their theatrical box-office data,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said in an email. “Comscore will, of course, abide by their wishes.”

Missed Opportunity?

Comscore collects raw sales data directly from theaters, which is then confirmed and distributed to studios and the press. Netflix specifically asked for that data not to be harvested with “Roma.”

In the process, Netflix may have missed a chance to build some buzz.

“Traditionally, the reporting of box-office revenue offers studios the opportunity to tout their success while sparking a conversation about their movies,” Dergarabedian said.

Netflix, based in Los Gatos, California, declined to comment.

Giving “Roma” a theatrical run is expected to help improve its Oscar chances, since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t usually consider films that debuted online. But it’s clear that Netflix isn’t prepared to operate like a typical Hollywood studio. The company also doesn’t share figures on how many people view its films online, forcing the industry into a guessing game.

Netflix’s secrecy haven’t stopped industry watchers from trying to gauge the theatrical success of “Roma.” Over the Thanksgiving weekend, it was estimated to have grossed $200,000, or $66,600 per screen, trade publication Deadline estimated.

Nearly Sold Out

According to online ticket seller Atom Tickets, last week’s “Roma” shows were nearly sold out. New York was the best performing market for the film, followed by San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“Roma” was never expected to be a U.S. blockbuster: It’s a black-and-white drama that draws on the childhood experiences of Cuaron, who won an Oscar for “Gravity.” The movie is showing in independent theaters, such as Landmark and IFC. (Major exhibitors like Cinemark Holdings Inc. typically don’t show films unless they abide by the two- or three-month exclusive theatrical window the industry has set.)

Netflix has put out ads promoting the movie’s run, which began on Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, New York and Mexico. “Roma” also opened in London this week, and it’s set to expand further in early December. It then will land on Netflix’s digital service on Dec. 14.

This weekend, Netflix said the theater count is 18 in the U.S., one in Canada, one in the U.K. and 14 in Mexico.

Cuaron, who is a favorite to win an Oscar for directing “Roma,” said he’s thrilled with Netflix’s distribution plan.

Nabbing such a prestigious filmmaker was a coup for Netflix’s film ambitions. The question now is whether the “Roma” experience will draw more directors to the fold – or put up fresh divisions between Netflix and Hollywood traditionalists.