Netflix and Roma – the repercussions mount

Screen International reports that Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International has written to BAFTA threatening to withdraw support for the industry body if it doesn’t change its eligibility rules re films ‘made for television’. With the prospect of more possible awards for Roma at the Oscars, Vue could be just the first of the major exhibitors to make this kind of threat.

In the UK, Netflix signed an exclusive deal with Curzon to show Roma only in Curzon cinemas in a controlled manner aligned with the film’s launch on Netflix. In the event, Curzon did later allow a handful of independent cinemas a limited number of showings in the UK and Ireland. Even so, as Screen International expressed it, this ‘Curzon ecology’ represents only 0.9% of the UK and Ireland market. The major cinema chains might expect to see a reasonable amount of extra box office from a film that wins a BAFTA. Roma won four BAFTAs including Best Picture.

Vue International operates 215 cinema sites across Europe (with 1 in Taiwan). These are nearly all multiplexes and Vue offers over 1,900 screens in total. Its main business is in the UK and Ireland with 864 screens on 90 sites. As an operation, its cinema business is similar to its two larger UK rivals, Odeon (AMC) and Cineworld.

Odeon operates 360 sites in Europe with over 2,900 screens. Its parent company AMC is the world’s largest cinema exhibitor with nearly 1,000 sites worldwide and nearly 11,000 screens on offer (the majority in North America).

Cineworld currently operates 9,548 screens across 793 sites in the US, UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel.

It’s worth reflecting on a number of other similar issues arising from film exhibition/distribution disputes in the last few years. In October 2018 Vue in the UK also had a dispute with Warner Brothers, distributors of A Star is Born. This was said to be about ‘booking conditions’ and was relatively quickly resolved but even so, Vue would have lost the business of the first couple of weeks of a major release. We’ve also seen similar disputes between Disney and Odeon. In 2016 a different dispute saw Tarantino’s film The Hateful 8 get some exclusive screenings in 70mm as stipulated by the director. As a result Cineworld boycotted the film. (See Keith’s review of the film at an independent in Barnsley.)

The issue that underpins all of these disputes has two separate parts. First, modern film exhibition assumes that any film can be shown in any cinema on its first release (what was once called ‘first run’). This is assumed as part of the concept of the multiplex. This wasn’t always the case. In the UK the ‘duopoly’ of Odeon and ABC assumed up until the 1980s that Hollywood films appeared on one circuit or the other except in places where there wasn’t a local competition. Second, the exhibition sector works on the basis of a set ‘window’ during which a film on a cinema release cannot be shown on any other ‘platform’. This window is being gradually closed. It was once two or three years, now it is commonly 14 weeks or less. Netflix wishes to abolish the window completely and this caused the latest problem with Vue. On BBC Radio 4 last night, Tim Richards implied that they could have screened Roma but to do so would have undermined the concept of the window and he wasn’t prepared to do that.

There is a third issue that relates to the above and we saw this a few years ago, again with Curzon at the centre of the dispute. This is the issue of ‘barring’ which was banned in the UK by the regulatory authorities in the pre-multiplex era but occasionally threatens to re-emerge in the specialised cinema sector. When Curzon opened a cinema in Sheffield, it refused to release a film which it was distributing under its own distribution arm to the long-standing specialised cinema in the city, The Showroom. Curzon is now in a powerful ‘gate-keeping’ position as the major distributor of arthouse films in the UK with the a significant number of West End screens. It also has its own streaming service, allowing it to release both in cinemas and online on the same day – making it a good match for Netflix. Curzon’s actions must have an impact of some kind on both Picturehouses (now part of Cineworld) and Everyman. The latter is the fastest growing of the smaller chains at the moment and seems to have focused mainly on comfort and good rather than programming to drive its commercial offer to middle-class audiences. Picturehouses has its own distribution business but doesn’t seem to have responded to Curzon with a joint theatre-online exhibition offer.

On this blog, Nick has emerged as a Netflix fan, or at least a prolific viewer. I think Rona and Des both use Netflix but I suspect Keith is not interested. I’m trying to resist Netflix as well. Having subscribed to MUBI I now have more films to watch than I can handle. I’m trying to judge whether subscribing online is making me less likely to go to the cinema – or whether the poor local offer of foreign language titles and other specialised films is pushing me towards that Apple TV box winking at me from below the TV.

8 comments

  1. John Hall

    On every trip to London now I seem to catch a new film at a Curzon that I was unaware was on release because of the Netflix financed output. Last time it was ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’, before that ‘Bird Box’, before that ‘Roma’. Only one of these could I seriously recommend.
    I will not be subscribing to Netflix because sitting in my flat watching films has a limited appeal. The number of unwatched dvds waiting for a slot in my none-too-busy schedule attest to that. What appals me is that the latest Coen bros film and one of the Utoya couplet that came out this year were kept from me by a sporadic access to Curzon and its Netflix output. This is a London-centric viewing platform. You may as well just show these films at the BFI.
    If you cannot see the movie at an available cinema then it does not, for me, entitle it to any award, BAFTA or Academy. It is just a television film.

  2. Roy Stafford

    The other ‘big beast’ in this row has just responded with a statement. Philip Knatchbull, CEO of Curzon defends his company’s actions and has a dig at Vue for being a multiplex chain with a poor record re screening specialised films. He wants to see the window closed for specialised films (and in reality it already is). Where he is on weaker ground is equating Curzon’s online operation with Netflix. He maintains Curzon’s online service has not damaged theatrical- but I don’t think the comparison holds up. I think many potential viewers of ROMA would probably not have been aware of Curzon’s operation. The whole business was poorly written up by mainstream journalists who said that ROMA was on ‘general release’ in cinemas.

  3. keith1942

    Very thorough Roy. In fact I have seen ‘Roma’ at a friend who has Netflix. I am quite sure the film looks and sounds better in a cinema. So I am not planning to make a habit of watching Netflix. I have not been to a Curzon for several years. There is no doubt that these practices are aggravating the problem of accessing a variety of titles. One reason I went to the Berlinale was to see both 35mm and digital in proper cinemas.
    One I went to is the Kino Zoo Palast. As is my wont I asked about their projection equipment; the auditoriums are really nice. It turned out that the main screen can offer 35mm, 70mm, 4K digital and Atmos sound. So I asked if they had screened ‘Roma’. The reply was that, outside the Festival, there programme is only mainstream.
    I notice that Roy mentioned the BAFTAS. So ‘Roma’ received ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Foreign-Language title’. It would seem odd if it was not the BAFTAS.

  4. nicklacey

    I shall be taking legal advice as you describe me as a ‘fan’ of Netflix! However I do have a subscription and it is invaluable for getting to see films that won’t even appear on DVD, still less find a theatrical distributor, in the UK. That said, ‘Roma’ would have done good business in cinemas meaning there was no economic reason for the restriction of its release; other than, of course, to drive subscriptions to Netflix. It comes back to the old problem of how unreceptive UK audiences are to foreign language films; I guess the last time subtitles were ‘fashionable’ was the 1960s (ie before my time)? Keith? Roy?

    Re John’s point about the Coen Bros. movie: you weren’t missing anything.

  5. John Hall

    I see two major awards for ‘Roma’ in last weekend’s Academy Awards. There may have been more as the Best Picture ultimately went to a likeable but forgettable film, and one based on unsound historical facts. Richard E. Grant hinted at this in a red carpet interview that offered the view that there was some intention to snub Netflix. Nonetheless, Best Director and Best Foreign Language. This should guarantee a second life for most films far in excess of their first run. Try and see this one without a trip to London.

  6. Roy Stafford

    Two recent news reports: first it seems more European distributors are criticising the Academy and arguing against Netflix (but praising Cuaron). Second, it appears that the studios are giving up on developing their own download services, judging the current box office performance to be OK.

  7. keith1942

    Long overdue. However, I wonder if the majority of BFTA members actually go to the cinema. In 2018 they awarded ‘Best British Film’ to ‘Three Billboards…”; or did Missouri opt out of the War for Independence in what is now the USA? And in an earlier set they ignored Charlotte Rampling’s career-best [that means something] performance in ’45 Years’.

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