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Film TIFF Lightbox secures exclusive Canadian run of Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix drama Roma

An image from Alfonso Cuaron's Roma.

Carlos Somonte/Courtesy of Netflix

For its 43rd edition, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival could have been dubbed the Toronto International Netflix Festival.

In addition to opening the fest with the streaming giant’s historical drama Outlaw King – the first time a Netflix movie has kicked off a major international festival – TIFF screened seven other Netflix productions, dwarfing the number of offerings this year from any of Hollywood’s so-called Big Six studios (Disney, Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, and Universal).

Now, two months after the festival dust has settled, TIFF is back in the Netflix business in a big, year-round way. On Wednesday, the organization announced it has secured the exclusive limited Canadian theatrical engagement of Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed drama that nearly captured TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Award when it played the festival in September.

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Cuaron’s black-and-white film, shot in and around Mexico City with a mostly amateur cast, will exclusively open at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Nov. 29, playing in 4K Dolby Atmos, the Toronto theatre’s state-of-the-art presentation system, through Dec. 2 (with daily screenings starting up again after a brief break on Dec. 6). Roma will become available to stream on Netflix globally starting Dec. 14. At that date, TIFF will roll out daily screenings of the film in 70mm. (The film opened in limited release in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City on Nov. 21.)

“People around here are saying I’m acting like a four-year-old, I’m so thrilled,” says Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of TIFF, who first saw Roma this past May. “Watching it was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theatre. Watching it in the Lightbox’s Cinema 2, with the Dolby Atmos sound, it was a spectacular experience.”

Based on Cuaron’s memories of growing up in Mexico City’s upper-middle-class Roma neighbourhood circa 1971, the Spanish-language film has been tipped as an Oscar contender since production was announced, thanks to the director’s highly respected pedigree (Gravity, Children of Men). Just before playing TIFF in September, Roma earned the top award at the Venice International Film Festival and has been racking up acclaim ever since.

“We saw what Cuaron could do with technology in Gravity, and now the things he does with sound in Roma, nobody has done this before,” says Bailey. “This is what we want from our best filmmakers – to wow us and amaze us and show us something that we can’t experience in any other way.”

Yet the fact that Roma comes through Netflix means there’s a hitch in this gotta-see-it-on-the-big-screen experiential narrative. Ever since the streaming service started producing original content, it has insisted on making its films available to stream the same day they might be released theatrically – what’s called “day and date” releasing. Yet few theatrical exhibitors are willing to make room on their screens for the company’s wares, believing that the policy cannibalizes their own business.

Now, though, with Roma and a handful of other Oscar-friendly productions on its slate, independent theatres have been warming up to Netflix, while the company has stepped slightly back on its day-and-date policy. Partly in a bid to please high-profile directors who prize the theatrical experience above all else – and partly to add a layer of prestige sheen to its offerings – Netflix is setting limited theatrical releases for select titles, sometimes weeks ahead of their streaming debuts.

Which is how TIFF has found itself aligned with Netflix not just during its 11-day festival season, but the other 354 days of the year. While Roma will play the Lightbox two weeks ahead of its streaming debut, the Toronto theatre has recently hosted day-and-date premieres of Netflix films The Kindergarten Teacher, Hold the Dark, and Outlaw King, all of which played the September festival. And this past Friday, the Lightbox opened The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the same day it became available to stream on Netflix.

On TIFF's burgeoning relationship with Netflix, Bailey says "things have gone well, but I think audiences are still discovering that these films are available theatrically, too. A lot depends on how well the films and filmmakers are already.

“We’re doing this because these are the kind of films we want to be showing, to experience in a movie theatre with an audience,” he adds. “It’s definitely the case with Roma and not just because of the technology Cuaron uses. This is a really emotional story, and it’s always amplified when you watch it with an audience.”

One Netflix production that won’t be making its way to the Lightbox, though, is the streaming service’s most ambitious effort to date: The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles' final film, released on Netflix and in select U.S. theatres a few weeks ago after decades of reconstruction.

“We don’t have that in the pipeline right now, but we’re talking to them about all of their films that go into release,” says Bailey. “[Netflix has] a list of films they want to release theatrically in different territories, and not every film they make is on that list, so that’s ongoing.”

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