Is Netflix’s $25 Million-Plus Oscar Campaign for ‘Roma’ a Game Changer?

Streaming giant’s campaign might exceed the budget for Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white drama

Last Updated: February 21, 2019 @ 3:30 PM

Netflix is betting big on the Oscar chances for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” with an awards campaign that cost $25 million to $30 million, according to several rival Oscar strategists who spoke to TheWrap. That would be nearly twice the film’s reported budget, certainly the largest campaign ever for a foreign language film and quite possibly the largest for a Best Picture contender.

But in a year in which the Oscars race has been highly unpredictable and fluid, are Netflix’s free-spending ways an anomaly — or the start of an expensive arms race for studios and indies hoping to compete for awards in the future?

Some industry professionals at competing distributors have downplayed Netflix’s influence. “My team has never had a problem finding quality, topical films to acquire, even with streamers joining in the market,” one industry insider told TheWrap. “There’s plenty of fish in the sea, and plenty of filmmakers who want to see their work on the big screen.”

At least one rival strategist conceded that the money Netflix spent on the “Roma” awards campaign also benefits the movie’s launch, whether to their subscribers or at film festivals.

At the same time, another Oscar strategist feared that a Best Picture win for “Roma” would remove any incentive for filmmakers to take their projects to either a small or mid-size indie distributor when Netflix’s can spend a chunk of its $150 billion market cap to win awards attention.

Netflix had no comment for this story.

It’s worth noting though that despite all the buzz, Netflix’s budget-busting campaign for Alfonso Cuarón’s film hasn’t paid off — at least not yet.

And as even the now-disgraced Oscar super-campaigner Harvey Weinstein learned, there’s no guarantee that the studio have an awards contender in play every year. But under film division head Scott Stuber, Netflix seems to be betting big on this year’s Oscar contest — hoping to make an impression at the movie world’s biggest show just as they’ve matched HBO as an Emmys juggernaut.

“If Netflix doesn’t win Best Picture for ‘Roma,’ the truth is they’ll never win it with any film,” another industry veteran said. “That’s why there’s so much riding on this — they simply can’t afford to lose. There will always be a contingency of Academy members who are unwilling to reward the fox in sheep’s clothing.”

Then there are the theaters, which may be hurt if more awards contenders follow Netflix’s move by allowing immediate streaming of films with only limited runs in conventional theaters.

The AMC chain has already pushed back on Netflix by refusing to include “Roma” as part of its annual Best Picture showcase. After the film won the top prize at the BAFTAs, major European theater chain Vue published an open letter from its chairman, Tim Richards, arguing that “Roma” was a “made for TV” movie that should not have been eligible despite playing in 20 U.K. theaters for almost 12 weeks, most in the art-house chain Curzon.

“Appealing to industry award panels and Film Festival organisers is an essential element of the Netflix business plan to attract talent and credibility,” Richards wrote. “Imagine the message that could have been sent by BAFTA if Netflix were forced to abide by the rules underlining the principle that a film must have a full theatrical release, otherwise it’s just a ‘made-for-TV’ production.”

BAFTA responded that it was “satisfied” that “Roma” met the criteria for entry and review their eligibility annually.

Stateside however, Netflix has maintained a connection with the smaller, art-house, regional chains that might more readily be affected by a Netflix wave over the Oscars. “Roma” is still screening on 45 screens across the U.S. between Landmark, iPic and other theater chains, something that the company has been eager to point out in its many billboards and ads for the film.

And according to a report in the Mexican newspaper El Pais, the movie expanded from just 40 screens to 140 in Mexico, all while still being the country’s second highest streamed film in Mexico over 28 days behind only “Bird Box.”

Several theater distributors have told TheWrap that “Roma” represents too small a sample size to meaningfully judge box office impact. They’re more concerned with how an earlier Oscars awards date in 2020 might impact the window to screen many of this year’s biggest players.

“Roma” is just one of many titles, including upcoming movies by Martin Scorsese, JC Chandor and John Lee Hancock, that show the streamer’s aggressive push into film as a whole, and not just the Oscar race.

In recent years, the streamer has driven other recent high-profile awards contenders like Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” and Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” And while it seems like Netflix may have spent lavishly this awards season, sending out awards screeners DVDs for at least a dozen films, the company did the same for movies like the 2017 sci-fi flick “Bright” that wouldn’t normally be in the awards conversation.

As a result of its efforts, the streamer landed Oscar nominations for not just “Roma” but also “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and for the documentary short film “End Game,” which could be Netflix’s second win in that category after the 2017 Best Documentary Short winner “The White Helmets.” Netflix also acquired the nominated documentary short “Period. End of Sentence” after its nomination.

Steve Pond and Jeremy Fuster contributed to this report. 

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