Oscars alone don’t explain Netflix premiering its movies in theaters

Hello, Oscar.
Hello, Oscar.
Image: AP Photo/Invision/Richard Shotwell
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Imagine the typical Netflix experience (apart from “Netflix and chill”): The comfort of your own home, with numerous TV series and Netflix original movies at your fingertips, all for one monthly fee. But in a strategic move, Netflix has decided to open its best movies in cinemas first, withholding them for weeks before migrating them to the streaming service.

Three of Netflix’s films will open exclusively in select theaters in the US and abroad for one to three weeks before paying subscribers can watch them online. The movies include director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, hailed as a masterpiece and winner of this year’s Venice Film Festival’s top prize; a six-part Western called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; and Bird Box, a thriller starring Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson.

“Our members benefit from having the best quality films from world class filmmakers and our filmmakers benefit by being able to share their artistry with the largest possible audience in over 190 countries worldwide,” Scott Stuber, head of Netflix’s film group, said in a statement cited by the Hollywood Reporter.

But it’s about more than providing the best movies to subscribers and making sure those movies are seen elsewhere. Netflix’s move is also a bid to win more awards and attract top talent. It’s a big shift for the streaming service. In 2016, Netflix had to partner with small luxury theaters to keep its movies eligible for the Oscars, and it’s vexed large theater chains by premiering movies online the same day they hit cinema screens. The company’s latest act means it can be in awards contention, while also preserving the movie-going experience. And since theaters just had their best summer in decades, that experience clearly still sells.

If one of the three Netflix films debuting in theaters does win an Oscar (Cuarón and Bullock already have one each), the prestige is Netflix’s to share—validation, perhaps, for a service that has been shunned by the film world before.

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg explicitly said he doesn’t think Netflix deserves Academy Award nominations, and that the streaming service’s original films will always be “TV movies.” The Cannes Film Festival also said that without a theatrical release in France, Netflix’s films weren’t welcome to compete, leading to Netflix boycotting this year’s event. “The festival has chosen to celebrate distribution rather than the art of cinema,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Variety in April.

But as it turns out, Netflix is willing to bend.

World-class filmmakers will likely be more attracted to Netflix if it means their work will have exposure both in cinemas and online, especially if they can insist on a theatrical release at the bargaining table. Netflix will be responsible, however, for explaining why some original films won’t get theater runs. (Are they just “TV movies”?)

But beyond the prestige, Netflix is getting ahead in the streaming wars. It’s leveling up with Amazon, which has waited the traditional 90 days after a film is in cinemas before premiering it online, and has a healthy relationship with theaters as a result. Amazon Studios has also distributed movies that won some of the major Oscars before.

There’s more competition on the horizon too, with Disney’s streaming service scheduled for 2019. Disney intends to take back the rights to its movies from Netflix as soon as it can, and the Atlantic points out that “Disneyflix” could completely disrupt movie theaters.

It makes even more sense, then, for Netflix to back theaters.