TORONTO — At the Toronto International Film Festival that ended Sunday, a clear front-runner emerged for the next Academy Awards.
The festival — where studios gather every September to debut movies they think can claim the industry’s top prizes — saw the debut of “Roma,” a Spanish-language story about child-care workers in 1970s Mexico. The film has all the elements of a strong contender: great reviews, sumptuous photography, the Oscar-winning director of “Gravity,” nonactors giving ovation-inducing performances and, to top it off, insights into race, class, feminism and U.S.-Mexican relations.
The film has just one big problem: Netflix is distributing it.
The streaming service in recent years has attempted to conquer Hollywood but often ended up antagonizing it instead, especially with its policy of avoiding movie theaters in favor of its own site. Now, as it prepares to steer “Roma” through the Oscar gantlet, the company’s moves may not only determine the next best-picture winner — they’ll reveal whether Netflix can finally move from disruptive outsider to mainstream player.
“This is a big moment — for Netflix but also for the film business,” said a Hollywood agent who asked not to be identified because he does business with both Netflix and its competitors. “If ‘Roma’ can’t win, Netflix can never win.”
The film’s Oscar campaign points up several major tensions, taking issues that have rippled through Hollywood in recent years and giving them high-profile expression. “Roma” pits Netflix’s deep thirst for industry recognition against its fierce Silicon Valley-flavored disdain for the conventional movie business.
The issue also forces Hollywood, which votes on the Oscars, to decide between competing impulses: Should it reward quality wherever it appears? Or cater to concerns about its own obsolescence?
Officially, movies need only a qualifying run — a one-week token release in New York or Los Angeles — to be eligible for Oscars. But in practice many voters favor movies with robust theatrical presences, at least for the biggest categories. And Netflix opposes broad theatrical releases — or more specifically, theatrical windows, the notion of playing movies in theaters ahead of a Web site or TV platform that drives those releases.
(Amazon, which won several major Oscars for “Manchester by the Sea” in 2017, does not oppose putting the movie in theaters for months before streaming it. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Though the telecast isn’t until February, Oscar season kicks off in September, when studios unveil their contenders to audiences and tastemakers in Toronto before their commercial releases. The studios aim both to build momentum and gather information for their campaigns, which will unspool at a dizzying number of panels, dinners, award shows and other festivals through the end of the year.
If Netflix is able to win with “Roma” with a limited theatrical release, it will show that many Oscar voters are willing to let the old ways die. And that could have broad consequences for the industry, making Netflix and its competitors a viable option for filmmakers and stars who want Oscar potential but the opportunity to work outside the conventional studios of Hollywood.
But if Netflix elects to release the movie broadly, it would illustrate that the company is not nearly as orthodox about distributing through its service as it claims and may be turning into a more traditional studio. Many other filmmakers are likely to demand their works are also made available to theaters.
And if “Roma” is snubbed? It will demonstrate that overall resistance to Netflix in Hollywood remains high no matter what it does.
Netflix is a global subscriber-based business, a model antagonistic to the long-term theatrical experience. But the company is desperately seeking its first major Oscar win. In the past few months it has hired consultants with numerous best picture prizes to their name to work full-time for the company. Despite spending heavily in the past several years on hopefuls such as the dramas “Mudbound” and “Beasts of No Nation,” Netflix has received prizes only in smaller categories such as documentary and cinematography. It has never been nominated for best picture.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” grew out of the director’s desire to tell an autobiographical story about the nannies who helped raise him in an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City, focusing on a Mixtec woman played by the nonprofessional Yalitza Aparicio. Cuarón conceived the piece minimally — the film is shot in black-and-white and features no score — making up for it with indelible moments between Aparicio’s character and the young boys she takes care of.
Cuarón pitched the film to the production company Participant Media, which agreed to finance the project before executives even read a script. After the film was finished, Participant sold worldwide distribution rights to Netflix.
Here in Toronto, a premiere crowd of 2,000 gathered last week, giving “Roma” a massive standing ovation. Then Netflix executives and the many creative people they’re working with retired to a trendy art space downtown to bask in their front-runner status at a splashy party.
“This is special because of all the people who worked on the movie, all the people I grew up with who never get recognized,” Cuarón said in an interview as he stood in the shadow of a gargantuan metal sculpture and a large artistic display of letters spelling out “Roma.”
But that gilded surface conceals the difficult issue underneath of how theatrical Netflix should, or would, go.
So far, Netflix is leaning toward conceding to Hollywood, at least partially.
Scott Stuber, who heads Netflix’s film division, said in an interview that “Roma” would have some form of theatrical release but declined to elaborate.
However, according to a person close to the plans who was not authorized to talk about them publicly, Netflix is planning to show the movie in the top 20 markets in the country toward the end of the year, probably in December, in fact giving theaters a short window of exclusivity before releasing “Roma” on the service.
The run, according to the person, will feature a lot of high-end independent theaters. Those theaters are amenable both to a foreign-language film and, more important, to Netflix, of which larger chains are more skeptical.
Its window would be only a matter of a few weeks — afterward, the person said, ads would promote the film as “Now in Theaters And On Netflix,” an eye-catching pronouncement for an industry that until now has bifurcated the two.
But there are deep doubts over whether the strategy will succeed.
“It’s hard to see how they really make this work,” said Jeff Wlodarczak, a Netflix analyst and founder of the New York research firm Pivotal. “They only want to put in theaters for a short amount of time because otherwise every other director wants the same release. And what does a short time in theaters add up to?”
That’s true for Oscar voters, who might even see a one- to two-week run in 20 markets as a token release. “Oh, they care, believe me,” said one rival consultant when asked if voters would opt against “Roma” if it wasn’t substantively in theaters. The consultant asked not to be identified so as not to be perceived as criticizing a competitor.
Whether the “Roma” plan would appease theater owners is another question mark.
When told of the plans, John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said, “That’s not a theatrical run — that’s a marketing ploy, an attempt to use a dip into the cinema to turn around and go for Oscars. It doesn’t allow the movie to catch on — you need a long exclusive window for that,” he said, noting other prestige-film hits took one month or more in theaters before breaking out.
But Cuarón said he felt Netflix was getting an unfair rap in this debate. “Everyone focuses on Netflix but no one looks at the other side: the exhibitors,” he said, referring to the industry term for theater owners. “They’re living in the ’90s. They need to be in the present.”
Netflix has two other major Oscar contenders this season, the Coen brothers’ Western anthology “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and Paul Greengrass’s “22 July,” about the 2011 Norway attacks. The filmmakers behind “22 July,” in particular, want a theatrical run and the Oscar accolades that come with it. Netflix has yet to announce plans on that film, which will be released before “Roma.”
Despite the argument by purists that films should be about the large-screen communal experience and not laptops, some people, including “Roma” actors, say the issue is not as simple as that.
“You look at places around the world, like the towns in Mexico where some of the other actors are from, places where you have to drive four hours to get to the nearest movie theater,” said Marina de Tavira, a Mexico City-based actress who is one of the few “Roma” performers with prior experience. “Putting it on Netflix gives the most people the best chance to see it. That’s what I think is important.”