'Roma' leads streaming push into Oscar race

Netflix desperately wants to make its mark on the Oscar race, and in Alfonso Cuaron's autobiographical "Roma...

Posted: Nov 28, 2018 2:20 PM
Updated: Nov 28, 2018 2:20 PM

Netflix desperately wants to make its mark on the Oscar race, and in Alfonso Cuaron's autobiographical "Roma," it has its strongest contender yet. Yet the streaming service -- having roiled the TV business -- appears determined to storm the movie-awards competition in similar fashion, which means breaking rules and operating very much on its own terms.

Tellingly, two of the year's best films, "Roma" and "Cold War," come from Netflix and streaming rival Amazon. Moreover, the two have a great deal in common: Both are foreign-language period pieces set outside the US, which were shot in black and white, reflecting the latitude that comes with being relatively unfettered by traditional financial considerations.

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"Roma" looks back at Cuaron's youth in Mexico, focusing on the family maid (played by Yalitza Aparicio) that helped raise him. Amazon's "Cold War" presents a bleak love story -- primarily unfolding in Poland during the aftermath of World War II -- from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, winner of the 2015 foreign-language Oscar for "Ida."

Both movies are vying for foreign-language honors -- representing Mexico and Poland, respectively -- as well as courting consideration as best picture.

Thanks to Cuaron, a much-admired, eclectic filmmaker whose credits include "Gravity" and the third "Harry Potter" movie, "Roma" is perhaps uniquely positioned to overcome hurdles. In a sign of Netflix's high hopes, the service has departed from its day-date theatrical/streaming release strategy, carving out an exclusive theatrical window for "Roma," which premiered last week in New York and Los Angeles. The film expands to other cities over the next two weekends, before landing on Netflix in mid-December.

Despite that concession, Netflix is maintaining its approach of opting not to release box-office totals, in much the way that it refuses to issue viewer data for its TV programming.

Although Netflix is remaining tight lipped, Deadline, citing industry sources, estimated strong early returns for "Roma," based in part on sold-out screenings for the few theaters playing it in New York and L.A. Still, in a year where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences flirted with introducing a "popular film" category, that means Oscar voters will likely be left guessing, at least in part, regarding the extent to which "Roma" has connected with audiences.

Granted, very little about either "Roma" or "Cold War" (which opens Dec. 21) would augur major box-office returns. The two films, in fact, are practically the definition of projects made without much concern about the tyranny of commercial appeal.

By contrast, the critical acclaim being showered on Cuaron's film -- a slow, spare, ultimately deeply moving project -- is obviously a big part of Netflix's battle plan. "Roma" has already garnered overwhelming praise, as various critics' groups prepare to weigh in with their annual year-end honors.

Netflix has consistently flouted conventions in its assault on the TV business and its norms, and accolades have followed. The service amassed the most Emmy nominations of any programmer this year, and tied longtime leader HBO in overall wins.

The movie business poses its own unique challenges, and perhaps even greater skepticism about these streaming upstarts. If Netflix has demonstrated anything, however, it's a determination to play by its own rules and, in an industry where money talks, throw money at acquiring credibility and prestige.

Those practices will be tested as awards season kicks into full swing. But if they yield dividends, the kudos that come to "Roma" won't have been built in a day.

"Roma" is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It expands to additional cities on Nov. 29 and Dec. 5 and premieres on Netflix on Dec. 14.

"Cold War" premieres Dec. 21 in the US. It's rated R.

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