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Netflix will release 3 prestige movies in theatres first

A limited number of cinemas in the US and overseas will receive an exclusive period of 1 to 3 weeks to play them

Los Angeles

NETFLIX softened its long-standing view on movie distribution, saying late on Wednesday that it would release three prestige movies in a way that it had repeatedly said was a nonstarter - in cinemas first, and on the streaming service later.

A limited number of theatres in the United States and overseas will receive an exclusive period of one to three weeks to play the films, which include Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, a black-and-white drama hailed as a masterpiece by critics who have seen it at festivals.

After that, Netflix will make the films available for streaming.

Netflix expects theatres to continue playing the films even after it flips them to streaming, with the number of locations dependent on ticket sales, reviews and whether Academy Awards attention materialises as Netflix hopes. The other films are The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part frontier anthology written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, and Bird Box, a thriller starring Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson.

Most theatre chains, including AMC and Regal, insist on a 90-day period of exclusivity. They worry that moviegoers will be reluctant to buy tickets if they know they can catch the same film just a few weeks (or days) later in their living rooms, and for less money. Single tickets cost US$15 or more in New York and Los Angeles. A basic Netflix subscription is US$8 monthly.

But some independent theatres have been willing to work with Netflix, even when movies are planned for immediate streaming. Netflix booked its drama 22 July into theaters in about 20 cities in North America in October, for instance, while simultaneously adding the movie to its streaming service.

Netflix's modified distribution approach should persuade more theaters to participate. But the move is really about winning Oscars and wooing Hollywood talent.

Academy Awards voters - unlike the Emmys electorate - have been cool to Netflix. Heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, for instance, have chafed at the company's policy of streaming movies immediately, suggesting the service's original films should be considered television.

Top directors like Cuarón, who won an Oscar in 2014 for directing Gravity, also want their work to be seen on big screens, which has made it harder for Netflix to compete with studios for projects.

Roma will receive the longest exclusive theatrical run, rolling out in cinemas starting on Nov 21 and arriving worldwide on Netflix on Dec 14. Netflix said that Roma would eventually be released in theatres in more than 20 countries. Some 70-millimetre presentations are being planned.

Scott Stuber, Netflix's film chief, positioned the exclusivity decision as an evolution and not a retreat.

"Netflix's priority is our members and our filmmakers, and we are constantly innovating to serve them," he said. "Our members benefit from having the best quality films from world-class filmmakers," he added, noting that directors also benefit from the global reach of Netflix's platform. NYTIMES

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