Netflix wants an Oscar win and it is spending big

LOS ANGELES • Netflix called it Roma Experience Day.

On a Sunday last December, the streaming giant rented two soundstages on a historic movie lot in Hollywood to evangelise for Roma, director Alfonso Cuaron's art film about a domestic worker in Mexico.

Oscar voters perused a museum-style exhibit of Roma costumes. Cuaron and his crew sat for hours of panel discussions.

Breakfast? Lunch? Provided. There were Roma stickers and Roma-stamped chocolates. Attendees were even superimposed into a Roma scene to share online.

All of it struck some voters as over the top. It was certainly a display of just how badly Netflix wants an Oscar - and how much faith it has put in the person behind the event, a strategist named Lisa Taback, to get it done.

Ms Taback, 55, is an Oscar-campaign veteran who cut her teeth at Miramax with Harvey Weinstein in the 1990s and whose resume includes best-picture winners such as The King's Speech (2010), The Artist (2011) and Spotlight (2015).

Mr Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, called Ms Taback "the best of the best" when he named her vice-president for talent relations and awards in July, adding that he wanted to "expand and deepen our efforts to celebrate the incredible creators and talent who bring their dream projects to Netflix".

The hiring went off like a sonic boom in Hollywood, reverberating to the highest levels of rival studios.

 
 

The Hollywood Reporter headline read: "Awards landscape rocked as Netflix poaches leading strategist." The streaming giant had aided its own awards operation while dealing a blow to competitors by taking a top campaigner off the market.

Now, the costly Oscar push that Ms Taback has orchestrated for Roma is starting to look historic. Cuaron's film, shot in Spanish and Mixtec and deemed a masterpiece by many critics, heads into the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday as a strong contender to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

If Netflix notches its first such triumph, "the game changes forever," said Dr Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the University of Southern California.

If a film primarily distributed online wins, the debate in Hollywood about what constitutes cinema is over. It would strike a blow to the big multiplex chains, which have refused to show Roma because Netflix offered them an exclusive play period of only three weeks; three months is the norm.

As far as box-office figures go, the streaming service has said the film has appeared in about 250 theatres in the United States since it was released on Nov 21, but it refuses to disclose ticket sales. A win by Roma could embolden old-line studios such as Universal and Warner Bros to shorten their theatrical "windows".

Winning would also make it easier for Netflix to compete with traditional studios for top film-makers. Its lone Oscar for a feature-length film to date has been for Icarus for Best Documentary last year.

Even victories in lesser categories - Roma has 10 nominations in total and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs earned three more - would buoy the Netflix brand, giving the company a glow of excellence and helping it defend against a coming onslaught of competitors.

Disney, WarnerMedia and Apple are all introducing megawatt streaming services this year.

Ms Taback declined to comment for this article. Strategists like Ms Taback try to avoid the media spotlight, especially before the Oscars, contending that they do not want to take attention away from the films. Another reason, of course, is that no studio wants to look like it is trying to manipulate voters.

With so much at stake, Netflix has empowered Ms Taback and her colleagues in the company's publicity department to mount a big, bombastic, back-up-the-Brink's-trucks campaign.

Roma, a black-and-white period film with no known stars, cost US$15 million (S$20.4 million) to make, but the company has spent an estimated US$25 million to US$30 million on promotion.

Some rival companies, yowling behind the scenes about overspending by Netflix, insist those figures are conservative. Netflix insiders have howled back, saying that some of its spending has been to advertise Roma to consumers.

Whatever the cost, the campaign is easily the most lavish in history for a foreign-language film. No foreign film has won Best Picture.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2019, with the headline 'Netflix wants an Oscar win and it is spending big'. Print Edition | Subscribe