Netflix's 'Roma' could be the turning point for the movie industry to shift away from theaters

Key Points
  • Netflix's "Roma" could usher in a new era of best picture award winners owned by streaming platforms.
  • "Roma" and Disney+ could be the catalysts needed to break the traditional 90-day cinematic window that keeps feature films in theaters before they are available for home viewing.
Alfonso Cuaron wins Best Director Motion Picture and Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language for "Roma," a Netflix film, during the 76th annual Golden Globe Awards on January 6, 2019, at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

"Roma" is a heavy favorite to win best picture at Sunday's Academy Awards. It would be the first time a streaming platform, Netflix, earns a best picture win.

It's almost certainly not going to be the last.

A "Roma" victory on Sunday will further legitimize Netflix, and streaming platforms in general, as venues for the highest-quality movies. It could also help destroy the decades-only exclusive theatrical window that movie theaters rely on.

Netflix and Amazon's Prime Video have been buying up potential Oscar-winning movies for several years -- Amazon's "Manchester By The Sea" was the first movie from a digital giant to be nominated for the best picture Academy Award in 2017. Each service has more than 100 million subscribers globally. Those massive audiences carry increasing clout with moviemakers, who may come to view the theater experience as less important.

"Movie theaters are not going to go away, but there's going to be a lot more of this direct release to the home type of windowing," said Tom Rogers, former CEO of TiVo, on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Friday. "I'm not long on movie theaters over the next five years."

Netflix has actually tried not to rock the boat too much with "Roma": It made the film available to theaters across the country and set a release date like typical Oscar fare.

"Roma," which depicts a family's life in Mexico City in the early 1970s, debuted on Netflix on Dec. 14, a standard first-run date for movies with Oscar ambitions. Netflix released the film in a handful of theaters weeks before it became available on the streaming platform, though wide release was tied to the day it appeared on Netflix.

Yet even this modified roll-out plan ruffled some feathers. Mexico's Cinepolis, AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas have all balked at screening "Roma" because Netflix didn't honor the traditional first-run 90-day cinema window.

The fight between media companies that want to shorten or eliminate that period of exclusivity has been going on for years. In 2011, Universal Pictures pushed to release the unheralded Eddie Murphy caper film "Tower Heist" on the same day as its theatrical release to about 500,000 Comcast cable subscribers for a whopping $59.99. Universal actually backed down, even from that high price, because of theatrical pushback to the idea. (At the time, Comcast was part-owner of NBCUniversal, which includes Universal Pictures as well as CNBC; Comcast now owns NBCUniversal outright.)

The tensions between Netflix and the theater chains may be so great that it could deny "Roma" of a victory, said Rogers.

"I don't think it's going to win," Rogers said. "It's such a disruptive pick for the Academy to end up embracing something that's really going to go to the heart of movie theatrical distribution and the whole windowing system it has. Netflix came up with a better way to watch television. Consumers have voted. It's a great way to get what you what, when you want, and how you want it. And they're doing the same thing with movies."

Disney could break the dam

Another reason "Roma" hit theaters first was the recommendation of the filmmakers: Alfonso Cuaron, the film's director, tweeted the ideal way to see the movie was with 4K Atmos sound projection.

A still from the Netflix film Roma.
Source: Netflix

That's likely to happen again. Many directors will still want their feature films seen in a traditional widescreen setting, broadcast to a large room of people with a communal experience.

But Disney may be the catalyst that alters the balance permanently, said BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield.

Disney's upcoming streaming product, Disney+, is slated to debut later this year. It could entice millions of new subscribers if it offers blockbuster movies at the same time as, or shortly after, their theatrical debuts. Disney will be starting from scratch as it tries to compete against Netflix, Amazon, HBO and others for streaming customers. Narrowing or eliminating the theatrical window on its biggest films could go a long way toward propelling their subscriber base.

"Disney's current strategy of having movies flow through the current sequential release pattern before getting to Disney+ is sub-optimal and puts a heavy burden on new original programming," Greenfield wrote in a Feb. 22 note to clients. "Disney and other legacy studios should be leaning into the future and be willing to disrupt their legacy business models."

For about a century, movie theaters have been the mecca for film goers. But streaming is built not only for people watching at home on their couches, but also for mobile users who want to watch video wherever and whenever they like. Netflix has already overturned one industry by launching entire seasons of TV series at the same time. It seems only logical that the elimination of theatrical windows is the next shoe to drop.

Offering a better audio-visual experience -- huge screens, thumping bass -- will keep movie theaters around. Then again, vinyl offers a better listening experience than digital. For most people, convenience trumps quality.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and Universal Pictures.

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