Every so often in recent years, a movie made entirely in a language other than English works its way into the Oscar best picture field, with the potential to become the first such movie to win the prize.There is usually a specific reason that it lands there. “Il Postino” or “Life Is Beautiful” took advantage of the new lust for the art-house in the 1990s, for example. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” captured the same epic fever that grabbed audiences with the box-office smash “Gladiator” in 2001. “Amour” in 2013 seized on baby boomer concerns about growing old.And of course this year there’s “Roma.” Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish-language dramatization of the working-class women who raised him in 1970s Mexico resonates at a 2019 moment of raised class and feminist consciousness.That specific reason is needed. After all, many great non-English-language movies are made every year and are not nominated. (Just look at the South Korean “Burning” or Japanese “Shoplifters” this year for two instances.) The largely English-speaking group that votes for the Oscars tends to honor movies in its own tongue, so there has to be a compelling reason to deviate.Of course, this year there’s also a specific reason that some of these voters may not choose that foreign-language movie. “Roma” comes from Netflix, the company that has been accused of ruining the filmgoing experience. The debate over best picture has raged since “Roma” won the Venice Film Festival and went over big in the Toronto gathering that followed. Could a service seemingly bent on eroding movie theatres with its home-first policy really be honoured with the most august prize that studio Hollywood has to give?Netflix put “Roma” in a token number of theatres, saying that it was the same width of release a foreign-language movie would get from a traditional distributor. But that only seemed to fuel the critics in Hollywood, who said that the company had deliberately chosen a foreign-language movie for its push because the expectations for a theatrical release were low. Having broken the stigma with an Oscar win, these critics said, Netflix will proceed to barely release big English-language contenders in future years. I’ve talked to backers of several rival candidates in recent weeks, and one phrase kept recurring: “Trojan horse.”Netflix put ‘Roma’ in a token number of theatres, saying that it was the same width of release a foreign-language movie would get from a traditional distributor
Where you stand on this debate depends a lot on views established well before Netflix came along: your conviction about the importance of movie theatres, your take on whether disruptive companies want to flourish in or tear down the industries they’re invading, your general level of cynicism.And whether the movie will win best picture Sunday, making Netflix the first streamer to do so, depends on where Oscar voters fall on this range.
In this file photo taken on December 10, 2018, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of “Roma” at the Egyptian theatre in Hollywood, California.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
In other words, whether “Roma” will be the first wholly foreign-language movie to win best picture depends nearly as much on how people feel about its backer as on what is said in that language.But the curious thing about these two moments of potential history – a non-English-language movie winning and a nontraditional studio winning – though seemingly unrelated, actually have a lot to do with each other.A bit of background on the Oscars’ complex relationship with foreign-language movies. Though such titles that break out in the United States are often deeply and rightly critically acclaimed, voters have had a hard time awarding them the top prize. In the first 67 years of the Oscars, only four foreign-language movies were even nominated for best picture.There have been more – seven – in the quarter-century since. But none of them have come anywhere near winning. The closest was probably “Life Is Beautiful,” and it wasn’t that close – it wasn’t touching front-runner “Saving Private Ryan” or eventual winner “Shakespeare in Love.”The reasons for this are many. The biggest is probably not straight-up xenophobia but that Oscar voters often choose people they know or worked with, and they’re a lot more likely to know people who work on English-language movies. But not too far down the list is this: Most Oscar voters watch movies as screeners. They’re judging films not in theatres but at home, where the temptation is high to return a call, cook dinner or – yes – watch another screener. As we all know too well, it’s harder to concentrate on a movie at home than it is in a theatre, where there’s literally nothing else you could be doing instead. And foreign-language movies – with generally different rhythms and the requirement to read subtitles – require a higher level of concentration.“Roma,” with its black-and-white palette, precise cinematography and lack of a traditional film score, requires an even higher level of concentration (and a bigger screen) than most foreign films.This has posed a huge challenge for Netflix, which in response has done what the movie business very technically calls “screened the hell out of it.” The company for the past several months has sponsored numerous screening events at the Hollywood guilds, rented venues throughout Los Angeles and New York and filled them with tastemakers, booked spots at entertainment-media outlets’ screening series, and done pretty much everything possible to be sure the folks who vote on the Oscars see “Roma” in theatres. If you know of a building with a decent projection system and a few comfortable chairs, chances are Netflix tried to rent it out, too.The company that has staked its business on movie-watching at home needs to lean heavily on theatres to achieve its biggest honour
This is, whatever your thoughts about Netflix’s strategy, at the least ironic – the company that has staked its business on movie-watching at home needs to lean heavily on theatres to achieve its biggest honour.And that’s where history comes in. Yes, a “Roma” win would be the first time a streamer stood at the podium at the end of the Oscars, and that would be significant. But it would also be the first time, in a long time if not ever, that a winning movie required this kind of concentration, a movie that so rewarded viewing on a large screen and punished those who saw it in other ways. “Roma” would be the most cinematic victory in many decades. And it comes from a company deeply agnostic about cinema.Of course, this is why some people think it won’t win, that taking a work that works so perfectly in theatres and asking it to resonate with voters watching at home is a fool’s errand. Because as much as Netflix tried to get people to come out to watch “Roma” in theatres, many modern viewers are too used to watching movies at home, too used to the convenience of being able to put on a good film in their living room, to heed the call.There would be an irony to this, too. Netflix has sought fervently for many years to bring a level of entertainment quality to the home – to further, almost as its core mission, the idea that watching at home can offer all the same benefits as going to the theatre. If it loses Sunday, it will have succeeded all too well.