“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s affectionate look at the Mexico City of his childhood, has 10 Academy Award nominations. It’s been in theaters for three months. Most Hollywood observers consider it the favorite to win the best picture Oscar on Sunday.
And yet officially, “Roma” hasn’t earned a penny.
That’s because Netflix, its distributor, doesn’t release box-office numbers. “Roma” may well end up as the most celebrated movie of 2018, and nobody outside of Netflix’s offices will know how many people saw it.
“As far as I know it’s a first,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore and a longtime Hollywood observer. “It’s incredibly unusual.”
Netflix acquired distribution rights to the film last spring and released it in a handful of theaters on November 21. By mid-December it was playing in dozens of countries and also streaming on Netflix — an unorthodox distribution strategy for an awards contender.
Of course, Netflix being Netflix, we don’t know how many people have streamed “Roma,” either. Except in rare cases, as with “Bird Box,” the company doesn’t typically release any numbers on viewership.
“Box office numbers aren’t how we measure success, so we don’t use them,” said a Netflix spokeswoman when asked about “Roma’s” earnings. The spokeswoman said, “We’re thrilled with the success of ‘Roma'” but declined to offer any numbers.
Filmed in black and white, the leisurely, meditative “Roma” follows a turbulent year in the life of a maid working for an upper-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. It’s received mostly rapturous reviews.
The Hollywood Reporter, citing industry sources, said “Roma” opened to near-capacity audiences in New York and Los Angeles — an unusually strong performance for a foreign-language film.
Did Netflix miss out on a chance to build on that early popularity?
“The box office numbers are a great barometer,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s a jumping-off point for a conversation about movies. It’s also a great marketing tool.
“So for any studio, you’re leaving something on the table if you’re not able to tout your numbers,” he said. “I would suspect that on a per-theater basis it (‘Roma’) has done very well.”
But Netflix’s distribution strategy for “Roma” has irritated some in the movie industry, which has long followed a theaters-first release model. Several major cinema chains, including AMC and Regal, have declined to screen the film, citing the traditional 90-day window between a movie’s theatrical release and its availability in other formats.
A pile of Oscar nominations does not guarantee box-office success, though. Several recent best picture winners, including “The Hurt Locker” ($17 million) and “Moonlight” ($27.8 million) earned less during their entire run in North American theaters than the new “LEGO Movie” sequel made in its first week.
So in the past three months “Roma” has almost certainly made at least several million dollars for Netflix. But we’ll probably never know for sure.