The evening wasn’t supposed to end in defeat. On the heels of a reported promotional outlay of some $25 million — encompassing saturation For Your Consideration ads in Hollywood entertainment-industry magazines, cocktail receptions, panel discussions, coffee-table books, museum-style costume exhibitions, TV commercials, and inescapable (in Los Angeles, at least) billboards and bus shelter ads — writer-director-cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white art film Roma had been handicapped as this year’s front-runner for a Best Picture Academy Award. Especially within the context of progressively diminishing buzz for A Star Is Born and a steady drip of controversy surrounding Green Book, heading into the Dolby Theatre Sunday night, Roma looked (to some, at least) like the movie to beat.
In what is widely considered an upset victory, however, Green Book ended up with the Best Picture statuette. And after entering final balloting with a robust ten nominations, Roma walked away with just three Oscars: for Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director for Mexican auteur and previous Academy Award winner Cuarón.
To be sure, the period-set Spanish- and Mixtec-language film — which features stars unfamiliar to American audiences and is plotted around an indigenous nanny-come-housekeeper (played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio) who faces an onslaught of personal tumult as the family she serves disintegrates — overcame no small amount of obstacles just to make the list of Best Picture nominees. The category seldom honors foreign-language films, and under Roma’s controversial distribution deal with Netflix, the movie only appeared in theaters for three weeks before becoming available on its streaming service.
But to hear it from several Oscar voters and awards campaign strategists — some of whom posit that Netflix may have actually spent between $40 million and $60 million to mobilize a For Your Consideration campaign for the drama, which cost just $15 million to produce — Academy members may have been turned off by Netflix’s spare-no-expense promotional buys. “People I talked to said they weren’t going to rank the movie at No. 1 or No. 2 on their [preferential] ballots because they want to send the message that you can’t buy a Best Picture Oscar,” says a voter contacted by Vulture. “They were afraid of the message that was going to send to the industry.”
Cuarón remained tireless in promoting the quiet, episodic passion project (which is based on and dedicated to the domestic worker who helped raise him), premiering the movie at the Venice Film Festival in August, traveling to its North American debut at the Telluride Film Festival a day later, and even going so far as to lead reporters on guided tours of the Mexico City suburb where he grew up and where Roma was shot. In interview after interview, he stayed on topic, highlighting the film’s deeply personal nature and the fact that mainstream movies seldom focus on indigenous women or domestic workers.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that a parallel narrative sprung up around the film despite the strenuous politicking of Netflix’s top-tier awards strategist Lisa Taback — a veteran operative who ran Oscar campaigns for Harvey Weinstein at Miramax and, in more recent years, helped ice Best Picture Academy Award wins for such films as The King’s Speech and Spotlight. Netflix has roiled the movie industry by shrinking the “window” between a film’s theatrical release and streaming availability. This, coupled with Netflix’s disruptive practice of “four-walling” prestigious movies like Roma — in which studios or distributors rent out entire movie theaters for a limited run, collect all the ticket revenues but keep the dollar figures secret — resulted in a shift of emphasis from the film’s technical merits to wider issues with the company. “A vote for Roma means a vote for Netflix,” says a rival Oscars campaign adviser. “And that’s a vote for the death of cinema by TV.”
Netflix, of course, landed its first Best Picture Oscar nomination with Roma, and a win at the Dolby would have undeniably changed the company’s calculus, putting it on a more equal footing with traditional Hollywood movie studios (which has remained elusive to the streaming giant so far) and serving as a kind of Bat-Signal to other prestige filmmakers that Netflix knows how to back a winning horse. For now, though, the Hollywood hand-wringing continues: What can studios do to combat Netflix’s deep-pocketed awards-campaign arms race? (To date, typical campaigns have generally fallen in the $10 million to $15 million range.) And going forward, what new rules will the Academy enact to address the inherent inequality between four-walling and a mainstream theatrical release?
Clutching two of his three Oscars backstage at the Academy Awards Sunday night, Cuarón tried to reframe his Best Picture loss as something more like a surprise win. “The truth of the matter is, out of anything that I have ever done, this is the one that I expected the least,” he said. “This is not what you would call ‘Oscar bait.’”