As is fairly well publicised this new title is a production involving Netflix and they control the distribution. Their tendency to offer token or zero theatrical access is also well known and has caused controversy at festivals, notably at the major Cannes event. So Netflix have expanded [only slightly] the theatrical access for this film, presumably so the film is a contender for awards at important festivals.
This release had a screening in the Leeds International Film Festival this autumn. Oddly it was not in Leeds but at the Harrogate Everyman. I do not think this venue has featured in any previous Festivals. And, if it is designed in same manner as its partner in Leeds, then I would question the designation of ‘theatrical’. The festival’s web pages did not shed any light on this unusual programming. A friend told me that he was advised that the reason was that Netflix were insisting that screenings were in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound system. [More on this later]. Apparently the Harrogate multiscreen is the nearest venue with these facilities. I did look up the title’s website, which had a function to check for convenient screenings. After checking seven of the cities or towns listed I found that I could see it in London on Boxing Day. This only started at 8.30 p.m. That would have cost me a return train ticket to London, an overnight hotel and two days away from home, [and my new housemate Dylan]. My colleague Roy Stafford has seen Roma and will be posting a review.
There seem to be several reasons why it is so difficult to see this film theatrically, already voted by the critics as the top title of the year in both Sight & Sound and in ‘The Guardian. One important facet has been set out with commendable clarity by Wendy Cook, General Manager, in the Hyde Park Picture House Members’ Newsletter;
“All the films we play in our cinema have a distributor of some kind. That will range from a large international company like Sony or Twentieth Century Fox to a small team of one or two people focussed on getting their film to the audience. They will understand their audience and the potential scale of that audience combined with the scale of the distribution … like the number of cinemas that the film play in, the marketing, how many screenings etc.
Netflix funded Roma, they are not however a distributor. They are not interested in reaching audiences through cinemas because they have their own platform and they want as many people as possible to engage with that. …
So, this year Netflix have initiated a strategy that gives some of their titles a limited release into Curzon Cinemas and handful of about three venues across Scotland and Wales.
This means is now open to the consideration of the major awards season but it is still not widely available for cinemas like us to book it.”
The cinema is one of a number of independent venues who have written to Netflix questioning the limited availability of this and other titles. [See the report by Screen]. It seems that the ‘window’ for theatrical exhibition is 3 to 6 weeks and exclusive to Curzon Cinemas. Curzon claim they only act as exhibitor and that bookings are through Netflix direct. So vast stretches of Britain and of the exhibition sector miss out. This is not helped by other players in the Industry. Screen International appear to have carried confusing reports on the issue. The Guardian suggested, erroneously, that the title would be available across Britain. The British Film Institute issued a Janus-style statement sympathising with the exhibitors but also praising the ‘availability’ via streaming. If my friend was rightly informed then the insistence by Netflix on certain technical standards for screenings would also be a major limitation.
I have so many objections to this, let me set out the important ones.
The rationale for Netflix’s stance on this has been surmised by some reviewers. Netflix operates a subscription streaming service.
“The company’s primary business is its subscription-based streaming OTT service which offers online streaming of a library of films and television programs, including those produced in-house.” (Wikipedia).
This service can be accessed across a range of products including computers, smart televisions and various mobile phones, Their prime interest is in signing-up more customers. This applies across the board. I went to look at their webpages and you can only access these by ‘signing up’.
The way Netflix organises access leads to restriction of trade, which means that would be customers for their commodities can only purchase via a highly controlled and selective environ. The EEC has already taken Google [and other internet companies] to task for what seem to be parallel restrictions. I am not a fan of the EEC but they would seem more likely to take media companies to task for similar practices than any of the British Parliamentary political parties.
Of course, restrictions of trade in film distribution and exhibition in Britain have been endemic since the Chaplin titles were used in an early form of ‘block booking’. Then as now the main culprits were US companies, as is Netflix, operating here. When the Hollywood studios were taken to task over anti-trust activities the market opened up. But it closed down again when the Reagan administration reversed these rulings. Currently in Britain the major distributors operate a series of restrictions including demanding the main auditorium, minimum bookings and priority over other titles. The latter tend to be independent and foreign language titles. Netflix’ partners in distributing Roma are Curzon who are very experienced in these type of actions.
At an aesthetic level there are questions of what exactly one gets for one’s money.
‘Devices that are compatible with Netflix streaming services include Blu-ray Disc players, tablet computers, mobile phones, smart TVs, digital media players, and video game consoles (including Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii).’
This streaming apparently requires compatibility in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound. And, of course, 4K on TVs and streams is not the same as 4K via a theatrical digital projector using a DCP;
’90 and 300GB of data (roughly two to six times the information of a Blu-ray disc’
And at present Blu-ray is superior to streaming,
‘it’s worth looking at the specifications for Blu-ray and streaming services. On paper, Blu-ray is certainly the quality winner, with the standard supporting video encoded using H.264 at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, delivered at a bit-rate of up to 40Mbit/s.
Compare that to Netflix, which is representative of other streaming services. It also uses the H.264 codec at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, but streams at around 12Mbit/s maximum. That’s a big difference between the two. To get its streaming rate down, Netflix has to throw away more detail in its video stream compared to the Blu-ray version ‘ [See ‘Quora’, ‘What Hi-fi’ and ‘Film-Tech‘ ].
Technical comments on sound suggest that there is an equivalent loss in audio reproductions.
The caveat in this quotation applies to all formats. Currently 35mm would seem to be superior to 4K digital but this depends on the source, the print and the projector. And similar facets would apply to Digital projectors, televisions and streaming equipment. But the mean would suggest that there is a vast difference in vision and sound between seeing something at a cinema and watching it on Netflix.
In a bizarre twist Roma, filmed on a digital format at 6.5K and using Dolby Atmos sound, has also been released [mainly in the USA] on 70mm film.
Several commentators have suggested that
‘this is the way things are going.’
My cinematic hearts ‘sinks into my boots’. Viewing life has got harder with the advent of digital. Titles that are shot processed with digital technologies vary considerably. Films originated on 35mm or 70mm or 70mmIMAX rarely have parallel contrast, definition or complete colour palette in digital projection.
Of course the entire film industry is about making profits from commodities, and surplus value. But Netflix is part of the expanded global system. 137 million subscribers round the world. Valued at a billion dollars for every million subscribers, [note, by the stock markets!]. Most notably leverage [debts] of over 20 billion dollars. [See Wikipedia]. At the level that such companies make deals the feelings and desires of actual audience members are inconsequential. Meanwhile the artists [or auteurs as critic love these days] are in hock to cultural capital. Seemingly as driven for the cultural aspect as the capitalist is for the value aspect. We have British film-makers working in the USA and mostly producing work that lacks the complexity and style of their home-grown products. And there are parallel examples from Europe and Asia. I like a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s films, more so those that come from a culture in which he is [or was] embedded than from one of capitalist media behemoths.
Wendy Cook has seen Roma and thought it,
“a really magnificent and important film”
The Sight & Sound review by Nick Pinkerton praised both the black and white cinematography and the use of the Atmos sound system. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian found it ‘dazzling’ and ‘inspiring’. Common mortals like me will have to take this on trust for the time being.