When I put together the most recent Box Office Report for the site, it wasn’t until the next day that I realized I had missed something. Roma, the new drama by Alfonso Cuaron, opened in a limited capacity at the weekend and did strong numbers. It played in three cinemas over the Thanksgiving holiday to sold out crowds and probably had a per-theatre average on line with the weekend’s major indie winner, The Favourite.
Or, at least, we think it did.
The numbers for Roma weren’t on Box Office Mojo, hence my missing them out. It’s a Netflix movie and it’s getting a minor cinema release because that’s what you do when your film is an Oscar contender. It has to screen for at least one week in both New York and Los Angeles before the calendar year is over, along with further stipulations. As detailed by The Hollywood Reporter, Roma opened in three cinemas and were sold out or near capacity throughout the weekend. Yet Netflix didn’t report their grosses. The estimates put the number somewhere between $90k - $120k over 3 days. That location average of $30k - $40k would make it the best ever average for a foreign-language film, not adjusted for inflation. Those are amazing numbers and would surely be a benefit to the streaming service in their battle for industry legitimacy and Oscar gold. So, why aren’t they reporting them? What do they stand to lose by letting everyone know their Golden Lion award winning and critically acclaimed juggernaut is making money?
This curiosity developed around the same time it was reported that Paramount had secured a multi-picture deal with Netflix to make content exclusively for the platform. This news was less surprising given how the studio, which has been going through a very tough couple of years, have used Netflix as a way to circumnavigate the traditional theatrical release. They did it with The Cloverfield Paradox and they did it with the international distribution of Annihilation. Netflix also bought the rights for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman from the studio in the aftermath of their last collaboration, Silence, seriously under-performing at the box office. Paramount are one of the true legends of Hollywood. They were the home of Billy Wilder! For a long time, they were unimpeachable powers in the industry, but the last decade or so has been a tougher hill for them to climb. Previously reliable franchises like Star Trek and Transformers didn’t perform as required, last year they lost a much-needed $1 billion financing deal with Chinese company Huahua, and CEO Brad Grey, who had shepherded the studio to 8 out of its 10 top grossing movies ever, was ousted after a series of flops (Grey died last May after a battle with cancer).
While Paramount still have the Mission: Impossible franchise, and it remains more popular than ever, the studio has found much more reliable success with small to mid-budget genre fare, such as A Quiet Place and Book Club. Yet these aren’t the kind of barn-burning hits that can sustain a mega power in Hollywood. Enter Netflix. These are the kinds of films that play very well on their service, the sort of cozy Friday night entertainment that works just as well from the couch as it does in the multiplex. In a marketplace driven not just by tentpoles but by an increasingly limited number of them, it makes sense for Paramount to want to bypass the theatrical process and avoid competing with whatever superhero movie is out that week. it’s another blow to the value of the cinematic experience, but why bother with that when it’s only costing you money you don’t have?
These two issues make the relationship between Hollywood and Netflix all the more intriguing. Netflix are a giant and have become indomitable in their might in a startlingly short amount of time. They’re the kings of the Emmys and snagged an Oscar this year for the documentary Icarus. Their films are festival hits, with Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs picking up major prizes at the Venice Film Festival. Celebrated film-makers are flocking to the service with promises of wider audience reach and proper funding for the kind of movies we’re consistently told Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Netflix are supportive of the stories and genres that were written off as dead by the industry, such as the romantic comedy, which they all but revived this Summer. When the Cannes Film Festival announced that they would no longer be allowing Netflix films into the main competition due to their avoidance of traditional theatrical runs, more people seemed to take Netflix’s side than that of Cannes. For all intents and purposes, Netflix hold the advantage right now.
This is what makes their strident refusal to release the box office numbers for Roma so perplexing. It only benefits them to let everyone know how popular their films are, especially if they’re pushing for Oscar gold. Screeners do most of the heavy lifting for getting the attention of the thousands of Academy members but it doesn’t hurt to have audience favour in your pocket either. But that may be what Netflix fear. They are trying to prove that they can out-Hollywood Hollywood by doing everything they don’t. they want to prove to the ‘Never Netflix’ demographic - which is sizeable in the industry - that they can be popular and prestigious and influential without having to kneel to the old ways. Yet they’re spending an awful lot of money to adhere to those old ways. If they weren’t so interested in being a part of that narrative, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on ensuring films like Roma are in the conversation in the first place. Netflix may cling to the notion of them being the ground-breaking underdogs of Hollywood but they still want to be included in the lineage of prestige. Even to Netflix, the Oscars matter. Hell, they may matter even more than they do to the studios. Big talent flocking to the service will want reassurances that they’ll be treated properly by Netflix and be given the treatment afforded to them by the studios, which includes a hefty awards campaign. As much as Netflix want to pretend they’re changing the game, they still need to play by those rules to satisfy those they work with.
It doesn’t seem accurate to say that Netflix want to beat Hollywood so much as they want to be a viable partner, a new addition at the big table with the adults. Working with Paramount benefits them both in that aspect. It’s not just good business: It’s validation. For their strategy to work, they need to follow the old ways and be the good kid, whether they like it or not, but in return, Hollywood can alleviate some of its fears about its own potential irrelevance. As much as each side claims their business strategies are diametrically opposed to one another, Netflix and Hollywood need each other more than they’re willing to admit.
Header Image Source: Netflix