Netflix came into Oscar night with 10 Oscar nominations for Roma, and although it didn’t win the top award of the night—that went to the polarizing Green Book—it picked up several trophies along the way and more than left its mark on the Oscars.
Roma—Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate and personal drama centering around a maid who’s inspired by the woman who raised him—won three Academy Awards Sunday night. With additional wins for Cuarón for directing, foreign language film, and cinematography, Netflix has cemented its place at the Oscars. Although it’s not the first Oscar win for Netflix—it previously won in documentary categories for Icarus and The White Helmets—and Netflix had another Oscar film in Mudbound, it marks the first time Netflix has won any Oscars for a feature film.
It wasn’t the only Netflix film up at the Oscars, with four nominations between The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and the documentary short End Game.
Netflix’s historic Oscar haul has been a long time coming. Despite its presence at the Academy Awards over the past several years, Roma marked the first time Netflix received a best picture nomination. Roma tied The Favourite with the most Oscar nominations of any film, which included two surprise acting nominations for stars Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. It’s already received a slew of awards over a very chaotic awards season and it has a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s the rare foreign language film that was also nominated for best picture. Its stars are unknown to most U.S. audiences; Roma was even Aparicio’s first role. And Roma’s box office run expanded to 600 theaters worldwide after initially being released in a handful of cities and even after the film was released on Netflix. There’s no question about whether this is the film Cuarón wanted to make.
But by the very nature of its existence, Roma is also a very polarizing Oscar film because of Netflix itself.
For the past few years, Hollywood has been having something of an internal crisis about Netflix and cinema. The perception that Netflix is killing movie theaters persists even though a recent study has indicated otherwise. As MoviePass—for all of its many faults and questionably ethical practices—demonstrated last year, people still want to (and will) see movies in movie theaters. Just look at films like Black Panther or Get Out, where part of the appeal was watching the film in a packed movie theater. Or best picture nominees Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody, which were both among the most successful films of 2018.
While Netflix has attracted bigger filmmakers in recent years like Steven Soderbergh, others have been openly hostile toward Netflix or scoff at the idea of watching anything on a screen smaller than a movie theater’s; last year, Steven Spielberg said that Netflix doesn’t deserve to win Oscars. An anonymous male director who participated in the Hollywood Reporter’s annual Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot series refused to vote for any short film or documentary that Netflix (and other major studios like Amazon and Pixar) released and called Roma “the most expensive home movie ever made,” one that “becomes greatly diminished when you watch it on television.” There was always the chance that Oscar voters would vote against Roma because Netflix is that despised.
This is all on top of Netflix’s massive Oscar push for Roma. Netflix reportedly spent $30 million on the all-out campaign, which has caused more than a little annoyance on the campaign trail.
Cuarón, for his part, has rejected the narrative that Netflix is killing or hurting cinema throughout awards season. When asked to engage with it following his two Golden Globe wins for Roma, he seemed annoyed at the question and told reporters that there are pros to both streaming and theatrical releases.
“My question to you is, how many theaters do you think a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars—how big of release do you think it will be in a conventional theatrical release?” Cuarón explained last month. “I’m having a bigger theatrical release than that, but way, way bigger, and it’s still playing. It was not a cosmetic release. To this day, this movie opened more than a month ago and it’s still playing, that is rare for a foreign film.”
Roma’s Oscar wins will only complicate that narrative. Netflix is attracting bigger filmmakers and stars every day, and some Netflix original movies are getting a limited theatrical release on top of its streaming release. We’re already drowning in too much to choose from on Netflix and even with recent cancellations, more shows and films are still being added every day—and not all of it is good. As Netflix continues to release Oscar contenders, push them during awards season, and spend millions to purchase films at festivals, it’ll be interesting to see how Netflix’s strategy evolves.
We have no way of knowing if Roma still would’ve been as successful of a movie during awards season if it had gotten a traditional theatrical release. But even though Netflix is still tightlipped on actual numbers, far fewer people would’ve likely watched it otherwise.
It’s sometimes hard enough to see the films that are your standard Oscar contenders. Some films have a gradual rollout so that viewers will have to wait weeks (or even months) for the chance to see it or their local theater just never shows it. For example, the U.K. is only just getting films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? while darlings like Eighth Grade (which was critically acclaimed but didn’t receive any Oscar nominations) won’t be released over there until the end of April.
A few months back, I traveled to Philadelphia to see Burning, which was shortlisted for the foreign language film Oscar, from New Jersey. When you factor in the movie ticket, gas, tolls, and parking (which was twice as much as the ticket when validated but was originally even more), it gets very pricey very quickly. Going up to New York would’ve been even more expensive. Even traveling from one part of New York City to another to see Cold War recently ended up being a drag.
I had that luxury to seek out the movie. Plenty of other people don’t and if you’re looking to check out an indie or a foreign language film that’s up for awards, it can be difficult to find outside of major cities or arthouse theaters. And there’s another barrier: In the cities where a lot of these movies typically screen, tickets are far more expensive.
We won’t know what the full ramifications of Roma’s wins will have on cinema for some time, or whether streaming will become less of a novel presence in the best picture race akin to how integrated streaming services are at the Emmys now. With Roma, viewers had that choice of whether or not to watch it. Current subscribers could test out a movie and see if it was for them without it breaking the bank. Roma is incredible in theaters; I’ve seen it there twice, one of which was in a Dolby Atmos theater.
Although concerns about Netflix may persist, far more people got to see Roma because of Netflix. As the streaming age is showing us, if you give people the opportunity to see it, they just might watch and expand their own horizons.