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Netflix brings Roma to cinemas. Is this the end of the 'windows' system?

The first reason for joining Roma to dwell on, of course, is that this Golden Lion winner of Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) is a brilliant film. But beyond that: Roma will be simultaneously available on Netflix and in cinemas in the Netherlands from 14 December. That has not happened here with a Netflix title before. Is the end of the 'window', the period when a film was only allowed to run in cinemas, approaching?

In the 1980s, it was conceived that new films should first be shown exclusively in cinemas. Only after a waiting period - the window - would video, DVD, online screening and finally television come next. In our country, Picl - more on this later - is already showing that things can be done differently. But mainly because of Netflix, the pressure from the other side is increasing. The high-profile release of Roma draws attention.

Started in 1998 as a video rental company, Netflix has grown into a major corporation. An online provider of films and series with annual revenues of more than USD 11 billion. The global US company has become a player of consequence in the film industry. Especially since it also invests in its own production and attracts big names, including the Coen brothers. Martin Scorsese will make his crime film The Irishman make for Netflix.

Noise in Cannes

The cinema industry is watching this with suspicion. Last year, Cannes included two titles in the competition (Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories). These would be released on Netflix but not in French cinema after the festival. This led to protests from the French film industry. Cannes subsequently changed the regulations. After which Netflix this year Roma withdrew from Cannes and shifted to the more flexible Venice. Where this autobiographically inspired drama by Alfonso Cuarón won the top prize. Now it was Italian cinemas' turn to protest.

Meanwhile, things are starting to shift. On the one hand, we are seeing the exclusive cinema window that the big studios operate in America slowly getting shorter. Now it's an average of three months there. In our country, it is about four months.

Roma at the cinema

On the other hand, Netflix does not seem insensitive to awards and recognition. To meet Oscar regulations, for example, it received Roma already has a modest theatrical release in the US on 21 November. Only on 14 December will Netflix itself screen the film.

Also in many other countries Roma shown in cinemas shortly before or at the same time as the Netflix screening. Not so in France, where a 36-month cinema window is set by law.

In the Netherlands, distributors and exhibitors are basically free to agree on certain windows or not. Unless, for example, a distributor is bound by the terms of a sales agent.

Ahead of its Netflix release on 14 December, it will experience Roma first preview at Eye on 7 December. From 14 December to 3 January, the film will also be shown at Eye. This will be followed by screenings in a dozen other film theatres across the country.

The window slides

How special is this simultaneous screening on Netflix and in cinemas? And how important is that exclusive window anymore? I ask René Wolf, programmer at Eye.

"There are currently more frequent experiments with shortening or abandoning windows. Think of Picl, day-and-date releases, IDFA documentaries that get theatrical screenings across the country but come to TV a week later or theatrical screenings after a film is already available on DVD. But also to Roel Reiné's Redbad which was available on major VoD platforms considerably earlier than usual."

"Personally, I think the fact that movies are under lock and key and not available for theatrical screening (both old and new titles, due to exclusivity for Netflix or other parties for example) is a bigger problem than windows. I am not against windows, but would very much like to see them a lot more flexible. We often run different film titles for a long time. The fact that a film is released on DVD during that run often has a positive rather than a negative effect on attendance. But at the same time, I also see that for a number of titles, a limited duration exclusively in cinemas can be very important, also for the follow-up trajectory of a film."

The windows system was once devised to prevent different distribution channels of a film from competing with each other. In other words, that a cinema sells fewer tickets because the film is also already available on DVD or online. But how real is this fear? Who, for instance Roma in the cinema will immediately agree that it is an experience that home viewing cannot match.

Fears of cannibalisation unfounded

Picl together with 22 film theatres, has already had two years of experience with simultaneous screening online and in the theatre of arthouse titles. Part of the online proceeds (for 8.50 euros you see a film) is passed on to the film theatre.

According to Noortje van de Sande, one of Picl's founders, this fear of so-called cannibalisation has been shown to be unfounded. At least in the art house sector.

"Everyone prefers to see a film in the cinema, but especially with smaller titles, that sometimes doesn't work out. It may be that the time of day is not convenient, or the title has already disappeared from the theatre, or there is simply no theatre nearby that shows the film. After two years, we are convinced that offering a film twice is only beneficial. We have not seen the dreaded drop in theatre attendance."

"On top of that, marketing budgets for arthouse films are small. With simultaneous theatrical and online screening, you don't need to rig up two campaigns."

Van de Sande also advocates finding smart ways to release films. "Internationally, Picl's formula is still fairly unique, as evidenced when we present it at foreign festivals."

Hope for flexibility

Back to the question from the beginning. Can we now conclude that with the combined Netflix theatrical release of Roma the end of the traditional windows system comes a little closer again?

"Partly," is Van de Sande's impression. "But it will also mainly depend on what the studios in America do."

Britt Colegem, of the PR firm Coopr that handles Dutch publicity from Roma cares, himself feels it is still far away.

René Wolf expresses hope that this will create movement among all parties.

"That on the one hand, Netflix is less hostile to the cinema business and gives room for their productions (old and new) to be much more available for theatrical screenings. Conversely, I think windows could be more flexible and shorter. Films - partly due to the large supply of ever-new titles - are running shorter and shorter in cinemas, but I don't think this has yet led to shorter windows. As a result, some titles are sometimes already out of cinemas but not yet available through other channels. That unavailability seems to me to be uncomfortable for any title and for any consumer."

Or Roma is an important factor here or not, we do see movement everywhere. In France, the proposal to halve the three-year window was launched early this year, at least for groups that have part of the proceeds benefiting French film production.

I was curious to know whether, for example, in the Netherlands Pathé would be in a construction like the one with Roma would like to step in, but a spokesperson informed me not to provide any information about their methods. From the trade press, it appears that studios in America are also studying new release strategies. Much will depend on the willingness of major cinema groups to go along.

Roma immerses you

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Roma (image: Alfonso Cuarón.)

What Roma himself, director Alfonso Cuarón has made it clear that it is important that his film can also be enjoyed in the theatre. I immediately agree with him. This calm but relentlessly compelling drama in which he returns to the Mexico of his youth combines very personal and intimate qualities with epic traits. Of course, the poignancy and strongly constructed dramatic climax will also work on the small screen. But the subtlety and sense of detail of the beautiful widescreen composed in black and white only delivers the real sense of immersion in an era in the cinema.

Immersion too in the life of a middle-class Mexican family, with the maid Cleo as the central fugue, alongside the family's mother. The men in their lives are soon gone. That makes Roma into a film that is both personal and political. It is about childhood, the position of women and the bloodily crushed student protest of 10 June 1971. In a typical camera movement, the image slowly swings from the scene in which Cleo is picking out a cot to the view of the street. There, students are running for their lives as violence unexpectedly invades the shop.

So should there be no cinema with Roma are nearby, at least sit tight at home. Turn off your mobile phone.

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Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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