I've got a review for Alfonso Cuarón's Roma coming up in our next issue, in which I join the ranks of monocle-polishing, deeply punchable critics everywhere by insisting that you just have to see it in a theater. Cuarón's film—at this point, the runaway contender for the best picture of the year—is being distributed by Netflix, but it'll also have a relatively small theatrical release starting on December 14, the same date it's available to stream. (Portland, we're lucky: The Hollywood Theatre's getting it.)
2018 marks the first year that Netflix and movie theaters (at least some of them) are cooperating on any sort of meaningful scale; in the past, many theaters have refused to show Netflix- or Amazon-produced films while they were also available to stream, out of fear that moviegoers would, you know, just stay home. Meanwhile, Netflix didn't seem terribly inclined to share its movies with theaters, because, hey, they've already got a more effective distribution service than any theater chain could offer.
But in light of a few new Netflix films with Oscar potential—Roma and the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—and with a newfound willingness to humor filmmakers who want their films shown theatrically, Netflix is starting to push a few movies into a few theaters, sometimes before they're available to stream, and some theaters are now willing to show Netflix movies, even if they're already available to stream.
It's just about impossible to see this as anything but a good thing. Hollywood's few remaining studios of relevance have almost entirely pivoted to franchise blockbusters, abandoning mid-budget and traditionally "arthouse" movies—so I'll take a new movie from the Coens or Cuarón however I can get it, even if that means dealing with soulless streaming giants. The tension—for me, at least—comes when theaters try to declare that all movies have to be seen in a theater, or when streamers insist it doesn't matter where you watch a movie.
Earlier this week, Netflix's head of content, Ted Sarandos, took a swipe at theatrical exhibitors, saying theatrical release windows have "disconnected people from movies" and that emotionally, it's the same to watch a movie on Netflix as it is to see it in a theater:
"I don't think it’s very consumer-friendly that consumers who don’t happen to live near a theater are waiting six months, eight months to see a movie," Sarandos said. "I don't disagree that going to the theater to see a movie is a great experience. I don't think emotionally it's a different experience than seeing a movie on Netflix. It is a different physical experience for sure."
Nobody but the shittiest of film snobs can argue with making movies more accessible—there is no downside to the fact everyone who has a Netflix login will soon be able to watch Roma, regardless of whether or not they live close to an arthouse theater that might book the film.
But I do wish Netflix would be honest about theatrical and streaming being as different as they are. It will be a different emotional experience to watch Roma in a theater—the same way seeing Dunkirk in a theater is different or, hell, Avengers: Infinity War is different. When you're watching a movie—an art form dependent on one's eyes and ears—there isn't a divide between the emotional experience and the "physical experience." Roma's striking sound mix, or Dunkirk's stunning visuals, or the bombast and scale of something like Infinity War all contribute to those films' stories, and they rely on the audience being enveloped in images and sound. Unless you've spent thousands of dollars on a home theater, these are the kind of stories with images brighter and bigger than your TV can offer, with sounds too complex or booming to be delivered via laptop speakers.
That's not to say one way of watching a movie is necessarily better than the other—a ton of films work just as well at home as they would in a theater. (Another Netflix-released film, Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), immediately comes to mind.) But again, and to use Roma as an example: When a movie looks and sounds as remarkable as Roma does, and when those sights and sounds are so deeply tied to the film's story, a viewer is going to have a very different experience seeing and hearing it in a decent theater than they would in their living room.
The physical affects the emotional. Which means as long as streaming services keep making great movies, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that theaters and streaming services will continue to at least sort of get along. Making films widely accessible is super important. But so is being able to choose how to watch those films. Those shouldn't need to be mutually exclusive.