There is no lack of strong opinions on these here internets, especially as it relates to the release strategy of ROMA, the new film from Oscar-winning Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón. The autobiographical drama is a masterful, towering cinematic achievement, and Cuarón has not been shy about saying the best way to view the film is in the theater. Except, this is a Netflix release, and thus most people won’t be able to actually see ROMA in a theatrical setting. While it’s true that the film finally convinced Netflix to break its own rule and release an original movie in theaters before it’s on Netflix, and that the streaming service has put together something of a theatrical release strategy that includes 100 screens around the world, you won’t be able to drive on down to your local Cinemark or AMC or Regal theater and see this thing on the big screen. But while the film’s theatrical exhibition may be limited, its wide availability on Netflix is almost kind of worth the payoff.
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s certainly not New York or Los Angeles, but I was lucky enough to live in an urban-enough city to where a good amount of films beyond the standard blockbuster fare were made available to me growing up. In addition to, well, Blockbuster, we also have a great independent theater that showcases foreign and indie films (shoutout to Circle Cinema), but I also understand that I was extremely lucky in this regard, and plenty other cinephiles living in flyover country have a far more limited selection.
A significant section of the U.S. population doesn’t have this kind of theatrical access to films that aren’t commercial. Especially now that Blockbuster is gone, having the means to actually see films like Amour or Beasts of the Southern Wild or Force Majeure is becoming more difficult. Which is why, when it came time to find a distributor for ROMA—a black-and-white Spanish-language drama—Cuarón went with Netflix.
Netflix makes these kinds of films accessible to everyone across the globe, at any time, on any size screen. Is the ideal viewing experience for ROMA in a movie theater? Absolutely. I’ve seen it in one, and it’s a tremendous experience. But speaking as someone who grew up in an area that Hollywood often deems inessential when it comes to “limited release” films, this ease of access means a lot.
Netflix is essentially democratizing art house cinema here, to the point that ROMA is—starting today—now available for any subscriber to watch at any time, mere weeks after the limited theatrical release. This means cinephiles living in rural areas can be in on the conversation immediately, and don’t have to either wait to blind-buy the film on Blu-ray months down the road or maybe/possibly/hopefully catch the film on cable someday. ROMA can be seen by those living in metropolitan areas, who maybe did get to see it on the big screen, but also those living in the middle of the county (or, notably, other countries entirely) at the same time. And that’s pretty great.
And I’ll go one further: saying ROMA absolutely has to be seen on the big screen is harmful to other film fans who don’t have that option. Matt Goldberg went deeper into this in a previous editorial, but maintaining that the extremely limited way to see a movie is the be-all, end-all way to see it could potentially put off others from even watching the film at all. It also ignores the way that most people see films these days, or the way many films have been viewed for the last three or four decades following the advent of the home video market.
Indeed, I’d wager that most self-identifying cinephiles of the millennial generation grew up on a steady diet of VHS and DVD viewings. Does the fact that you saw The Godfather or Star Wars on VHS negate the viewing experience entirely? Of course not. So why should we be limiting ROMA to only its most pristine viewing experience here?
Listen, I get it. Netflix is far from perfect when it comes to theatrical exhibition, and if they’d loosen up their own self-imposed rules a bit, maybe films like ROMA could get a wider theatrical release. But the fact that Netflix is making a Spanish-language masterpiece from one of the best filmmakers living today available to its more than 117 million subscribers at the same time is kind of beautiful, and democratizing important, challenging art like this has the power to give birth to not only a new generation of cinephiles, but potentially the next Alfonso Cuarón. Whether she or he lives in Los Angeles, California or Tulsa, Oklahoma.