By Tom Charity
“Does this finally prove that size matters?” James Cameron asked, cheekily, when he picked up the award for Best Film at the Golden Globes for his epic romance, Titanic, 21 years ago this week. His point: no matter how cheap and convenient DVD might be, people would go to the movies if you gave them enough of a reason not to stay at home. Ten years ago, Cameron came back with Avatar, another global smash, and another blockbuster that was framed as cinema’s saviour.
It seems like the exhibition business is always on the brink of collapse, and in 2018 the situation is as parlous as ever, though the threat is no longer TV or DVD, but streaming and smartphones. Jim Cameron’s question about size is still pertinent though. This week, Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical film Roma, opens in about 100 cinemas worldwide (the film opened a couple of weeks ago in New York and Los Angeles only), at the same time as it becomes available for streaming through Netflix, which produced the movie.
Even in 2018 this is an unusual release strategy. In part that’s because the movie chains won’t play ball. Most are trying to hold the line on a 90-day theatrical window before the movie can be accessed at home. For its part, Netflix has not seen much value in traditional cinema distribution. If it’s investing in content (and Netflix is far and away the biggest studio right now) then it wants it to be exclusive.
Roma represents a strategic shift for the company, mostly, one suspects, because some Academy Awards would look awfully nice on the resume. And with this movie that is a very real possibility. An autobiographical piece from the director of Y tu mama tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity, the film has already racked up Best of the Year prizes from most of the major critics groups, including the New York, LA, San Francisco and Toronto Film Critics Circles. Set in Mexico City in 1970, when Cuaron was about nine years old, but centered on the life of Cleo, a maid/nanny to a middle-class family during a tumultuous year, it’s a slow but evocative piece that builds almost imperceptibly to an emotionally intense but deeply moving finale.
Last week Netflix chief Ted Sarandos talked about how he believes viewers will love Roma no matter whether they watch it in a cinema or on their phone. “I have a 22-year-old son … a film student, who has only seen Lawrence of Arabia on a phone. He thinks it’s one of the greatest movies of all time,” he said.
Sarandos may be right, but it was interesting that when Netflix was negotiating with VIFF to put Roma on our screen, they wanted assurances that we could project the film on 4K and with a 5.1 Dolby sound system. In other words, they recognized that if it’s worth doing a cinema release, then it’s worth insisting on optimal standards of presentation for what is, after all, a deluxe experience.
Lawrence of Arabia, Roma, and even Titanic have qualities that transcend the limitations of whatever format you may encounter them in, but that’s not to say these encounters will be the same. I remember the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey is was on a 16” black and white TV set and distinctly underwhelming. A few months ago I had the opportunity to introduce my 13-year-old to the movie on 70mm film at the Park Theatre. We sat in the front row and it was a mind-blowing experience, as it should be.
On the face of it, Roma, which is in black and white and which doesn’t have much in the way of action scenes, would seem a far cry from the epic cinematic attributes of Lawrence, Avatar or 2001, yet I believe cinema presentation, done right, magnifies the qualities of every aspect of film – the faces of the actors, the way that light dances across the eyes, the sounds of the street, the humour and the pathos of the drama – to become the kind of transcendent art that takes us out of the world to make us feel it anew, with clear eyes and open hearts.
ROMA screens December 14 – January 3 at VIFF Vancity Theatre
Screening times and tickets at https://goviff.org/roma/