Future Tense

What the Success of Netflix’s Roma Foretells for the Future of Film

By official counts, the film hasn’t made a penny from the box office. But it’s paving a new path to prestige.

A scene from Roma seen on one side in a theater and on an iPhone on the other side.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Benjaminrobyn Jespersen/Unsplash, Netflix, and Davizro/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

We are in the middle of a “Netflix Revolution.” Streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon are not only changing way the world consumes movies and television content, they are now changing the nature by which films get made and distributed.

With Roma making history as Netflix’s first Academy Award Best Picture nomination, the streaming giant has also shown us another revolution: how its style of online distribution doesn’t necessarily devalue a film anymore. And that’s going to have a profound impact on the stories and voices we will see on screens big and small for decades to come.

By many counts, Roma—Alfonso Cuarón’s cinematic tale of Mexican identity, sexual politics, societal violence, working-class agency, and economic divide—doesn’t fit the traditional mainstream motion picture mold. The film entered a U.S. theatrical marketplace quite unfriendly to non-English-language films. The industry writ large remains dominated by a handful of global companies monopolizing the screens—overrunning theaters with blockbusters, franchises, and sequels.

Cuarón, no stranger to Hollywood, has directed one such franchise picture: the third installment of the Harry Potter adaptations, The Prisoner of Azkaban. He’s also earned praise in the industry, including becoming the first Latin American to win the Academy Award for directing the star-studded, science-fiction thriller Gravity. His critical and financial success afforded him the opportunity to pursue the far less commercial project that was Roma, his long-gestating autobiographical tale of his middle-class upbringing in 1970s Mexico City. But the current, more open political climate and his past commercial success aren’t enough to explain why his black-and-white film—focused on the story of his real-life live-in Oaxacan domestic worker, led by an indigenous performer who’s never acted before, spoken in entirely Spanish and Mixtec, and with almost no historical context for the non-Mexican viewer—found its audience, whereas similar films before might struggle to find even cult followings, if they were even greenlighted at all.

Certainly, Cuarón’s reputation offset some of the financial risk Participant Media knew it was taking spending $15 million on the production of a film it knew wouldn’t be a box office blockbuster. (Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language Pan’s Labyrinth grossed $83 million worldwide in 2006 after widespread critical acclaim but was very much a rarity.) Yet, not knowing if moviegoing audiences would take to Roma, but still “wanting the film to be seen in theaters but also to be seen by millions,” Participant Media CEO David Linde and Cuarón looked to a different path and took up Netflix’s offer of an alternative strategy for releasing film: to screen it exclusively in theaters for three weeks, then let it land online on the streaming platform on Dec. 14.

It was a big bet. The short “window” Netflix proposed between theatrical and streaming—as opposed to the typical 90 and 120 days offered for mainstream releases—led many of the largest theater chains in the United States (AMC and Regal) and Mexico (Cinepolis and Cinemax) to refuse to screen film. Their belief that the online market would cannibalize theatrical sales might have been true to some extent. But the film has, nonetheless, managed to appear in more than 1,000 theaters around the world, including more than 250 in the United States and 100 in Mexico.

Stunningly, because Netflix doesn’t release box office numbers, by official counts, the film technically hasn’t earned a penny (though unofficial estimates by experts suggest it had a strong limited release).  A spokeswoman for the company told CNN that, “Box office numbers aren’t how we measure success, so we don’t use them.” Netflix hasn’t yet said how it’s performed online in the U.S. either, but the company did report that nearly 50 percent of its Mexican accounts had screened the film, making it the second-most popular movie ever offered by the streaming service in the country.

Roma’s seeming triumph in both the theatrical and online space may be due to a number of factors: its luscious widescreen composition, its Dolby Atmos sound technology, its 70 mm presentation at certain theaters, and its great number of accolades (among them, 10 Academy Award nominations).  Even so, the success of Netflix’s novel release model for Roma illustrates that consumers may no longer discriminate between the big screen and small screen in their moviegoing decision-making. So what might this mean for the movie industry?

Major Hollywood studios may still find the megaplex indispensable in launching their megamillion franchise pictures. Audiences, who will pay a high ticket price for the immersive visual and aural experiences of these high-octane, big-budget movies, may too. But for films without big budgets, big production houses, or obvious mass English-language appeal, it appears that Netflix’s model—with its low-cost monthly streaming plans (often comparable to the price of a single theater ticket) and deep catalog—may not devalue a motion picture. Other moves in the industry, such as Oscar-winning independent studio A24’s deal to produce a slate of films for Apple, and Disney, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia’s plans to launch their own streaming service, indicate that this is a model that’s here to stay.

Roma’s history-making as the first Best Picture nominee to come from a streaming service also hints at a revolution bigger than money—that Netflix’s model might prove one of the most promising routes for films like Cuarón’s masterpiece to earn both the audiences and prestige they deserve.

This new wave of distribution suggest a less “gentrified” theatrical experience. And, as Cuarón puts it, it will bring all sorts of moviegoing experiences for audiences: “a diversity of storytelling, diversity in characters, diversity in countries, diversity in languages, [and] diversity in the way in which you see films.”

It signals a future where films are less about the viewers they reach on opening weekend and more about the viewers in whose minds they endure.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.