Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN Not Getting Wide Theatrical Release (FILM NEWS)

This mess was so predictable.

After Netflix provided an extremely limited theatrical release for its Oscar contender Roma prior to launching it on their streaming platform (which helped lead to 10 Academy Award nominations and 3 wins), media analysts theorized that they would do at least that for Martin Scorsese‘s all-star mob epic The Irishman and, more likely, expand beyond Roma‘s select-city window.

Now, officially, that’s not happening. At this point, we’ll be lucky if The Irishman even matches Roma‘s restricted run.

After months of negotiations between Netflix and major theater chains, both sides were unable to reach a deal for distribution. Netflix wanted theater owners to relax their 90-day exclusive window to allow The Irishman to have a much shorter 21-day theater exclusivity before premiering on Netflix.

The chains, understandably, balked at that. I don’t like the result, but I’m grateful to theater owners for standing their ground.

If they had caved to Netflix’s request, it would’ve set a crippling precedent. All other streamers — Disney+, Amazon Prime, Apple+, Hulu, etc. — would rightly demand the same allowance, and that would amount to theaters digging their own graves.

The Irishman will still get a theatrical release, but one that most people won’t be able to access. Prior to its Netflix launch on November 27, The Irishman will open in select independent theaters in New York and L.A. on November 1. It will have a small expansion on the following weekends of November 8, 15, and 22 but, as of now, that’s it.

At its height, The Irishman is not expected to be on more than 125 screens nationally, which would be the equivalent of Roma, and only in major metropolitan markets. (As a comparison, most releases reach anywhere between 2000 to 4000 screens.)

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, or so said the movie prognosticators.

This is, after all, Martin Scorsese reuniting with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and working with Al Pacino for the first time — in a mob movie, no less. I mean, it has to be seen on the big screen. Plus, Netflix wouldn’t dare to not deliver a proper theatrical platform for one of the greatest directors of all time (who considers the theatrical experience sacrosanct)…right?

Think again.

After The Irishman premieres in late September at the New York Film Festival, most audiences will only ever be able to experience it as a TV movie.

Anne Thompson — editor of IndieWire, co-host of the ScreenTalk podcast with Eric Kohn, Oscar maven extraordinaire, and one of the best all-around industry commentators — has long believed that theater chains are hurting themselves by holding the line. She believes this decision is no different. “Ultimately,” Thompson writes, “none of this worked for the chains.”

With respect, I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yes, as she also says, “Of course, they want the Scorsese movie,” but they know the cost would be too high. It’s better to miss out on one highly-coveted event movie than destroy their entire business model via suicide.

More to the point: the months-long negotiations between Netflix and theater chains reveals that it’s the theater chains — not Netflix — that has the power position. They have the leverage. They have what Netflix wants and needs, much more than the other way around. If they didn’t, Netflix wouldn’t have wasted their time. After all, they went to theater owners; the theaters didn’t come begging to them.

As Roma‘s Best Picture loss to Green Book proved, if a studio wants to win the Academy’s top prize it still needs a proper theatrical release for its movie. Netflix wants that. It needs that, and for more reasons than prestige. If they can’t promise the possibility of awards play to major filmmakers, it diminishes their position in the industry (as well as on Wall Street, where their stock is falling).

The landscape is even more dangerous now with the emergence of the new streaming competitors. Netflix has lost its at-home monopoly, and now they have the weakest position with theaters. Add to that: they’ve likely ticked off Scorsese (who’s next movie will be with Paramount) and, in the process, have shown no ability to deliver a quality theatrical platform to other elite filmmakers.

In a recent report from The New York Times, details of negotiations between Netflix and theater giants AMC and Cineplex (the two biggest theater chains in the U.S. and Canada, respectively) were brought to light:

  • A crucial sticking point has been the major chains’ insistence that the films they book must play in their theaters for close to three months while not being made for available for streaming at the same time, which does not sit well with Netflix. Talks broke down in July, only to pick up again two weeks ago, the people said…The full extent of the theatrical rollout remains up in the air. Where, exactly, moviegoers will be able to see “The Irishman” won’t be clear until the discussions between Netflix and select major theater chains end. 

Well, now it’s clear. It’s a sad moment for cinephiles but, in the long run, it’s a necessary stand to take. Movie fans lost the battle, but theaters are helping us win the war.

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