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The Petty Feud Over ‘Roma’ Shows Hollywood Is Still Grappling With Streaming Services


The Academy must have been relieved when the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month. People are actually talking about about the movies themselves for a change, rather than challenges the Academy faced in preceding months. While it’s still addressing the specter of discrimination within its ranks, cinema’s governing body also has issues to contend with regarding its annual awards show.

It was later than usual that the Academy announced Kevin Hart would host this year’s telecast. Almost immediately, Hart came under fire for jokes he told years prior that were deemed offensive, jokes he had addressed previously. Rather than buckle to the outrage mob, Hart initially said, “I chose to pass on the apology.” The Academy got nervous about the hysterics, however, and gave him an ultimatum. Hart then “ankled” from the job, as some might say in Burbank.

Left without a host, the Academy searched in vain for a replacement before settling on the least controversial selection: there will be no host at all on Feb. 24. While grateful people are now discussing the nominated films, another controversy afoot reflects a different type of intolerance in the industry.

There is pride among the Academy’s voting ranks over the diversity of nominees. “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman” netted more than a dozen nominations, and the Mexican production “Roma” earned ten on its own, including for Yalitza Aparicio, who became the first Latina nominated for Best Actress in 14 years. (Sure, there were zero female directors recognized, but still…)

But all is not well with “Roma.” While the Academy is happy to crow about diversity, another kind of intolerance remains at play. The Alfonso Cuaron picture is something of a historic landmark, as the first ever Netflix film nominated for Best Picture. This detail is not sitting well with a number of the largest theater chains, which have elected to blackball the Oscar darling.

Each year, the major movie theater chains stage a showcase of all the films nominated for the Academy’s top award, giving fans the chance to see them on the big screen. But in an orchestrated movethe three largest chains—AMC Theaters, Cinemark, and Regal Cinemas —are not showing “Roma” in their screenings because it’s a Netflix property. The title, they claim, does not meet their theatrical window requirements.

Regal made no direct mention of the film in releasing its scheduled showings, and Cinemark made no statement about the exclusion when it released its schedule either. AMC, however, was more than open about denying “Roma” a spot in its showcase, releasing a statement about the decision that read: 

For more than a decade, movie-lovers have enjoyed the AMC Best Picture Showcase to catch up on the nominated films that played at AMC throughout the prior year. This year, Academy members nominated a film that was never licensed to AMC to play in our theatres. As such, it is not included in the AMC Best Picture Showcase.

That wording reveals the specific rift between Netflix and the theater chain. AMC makes it sound as though they were never permitted to show “Roma,” which is not accurate. When the exhibitor used the term “never licensed,” it was not stating it had no permission to show the film but that the streaming service did not meet requirements implemented by the chains themselves.

Netflix did, in fact, show “Roma” in theaters; this is how the film qualified for Oscar consideration, after all.  But that release did not meet a window requirement the theaters adopted years ago, one specifically targeted at titles shown on streaming platforms or Video On Demand. To protect their turf, the chains require a film be given a 90-day period of availability to theaters before moving to VOD or streaming.

This standard was put in place as Hollywood and the broader industry attempted to contend with the arrival of digital content providers. At the same time, those companies—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and others—eyed getting their films recognized for top theatrical prizes. This increasingly angered the Hollywood establishment.

One way digital providers were seeking notice of their titles was through the limited release strategy (as used this year for “Roma”) to qualify for awards consideration. The film would show at a minimum amount of theaters, and any nominations or wins become bragging rights in the marketing of their content. So, humorously, Hollywood elitists became concerned over the very strategy studios have been using for generations. The late-fall limited release and gradual rollout into awards season is a tried studio method to help boutique films gain notice for awards.

Another area of concern is in regards to film festivals, in two-fold fashion. First, films entered and recognized in these respected circles get critical eyes on the product, and can elevate the importance of the title. At the Cannes Film Festival, organizers installed exhibition requirements, that movies entered will only qualify with requisite theatrical showings.

The other concern involves the acquisition process. The streaming services have become bigger players in purchasing independent films at festivals, with Netflix especially proactive in its buying. Three years ago Amazon spent heavily to acquire the rights to “Manchester by the Sea” out of Sundance. The digital provider agreed with the theatrical run 90-day requirement, and it earned a number of nominations (including a Best Picture). The movie won two trophies, one for actor Casey Affleck and one for the screenplay.

The Oscars have been no less intolerant. In October 2017, as a preamble to last year’s awards, the Academy staged a rare members meeting to specifically discuss what to do regarding titles from the digital subscriber services. The members were notably concerned with the digital providers diluting what they deem to be the high esteem for Academy Awards. As one member was quoted during this meeting, their concern was over  “a cheapening of the Oscar.”

But maybe their focus should be elsewhere. Consider how the Academy is still contending with discrimination issues, the infamous mixup of winners two years ago, controversy over Hart, and how ratings for the shows have been steadily plummeting to record lows. Clearly more serious  issues at play could be credited with cheapening the little gold guy.