Should you see “The Irishman” in a movie theater?
Short answer: of course you should.
Is it a shame that almost everyone will watch it at home on Netflix? Sure. But without Netflix “The Irishman” wouldn’t exist.
Welcome to the state of the movie industry in 2019, when what may very well be the year’s best film was essentially made for TV. This development comes at a time of loud arguments, both within and outside the industry, over how long a movie should play in theaters before becoming available elsewhere, how much we need to know about a movie’s success, and what even constitutes a movie in the first place. There are winners and losers in this fight, but they’re not necessarily the obvious ones.
“The Irishman” seems tailor made for the biggest screen you can find. It’s a 3½-hour gangster epic from Martin Scorsese that stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and — as former Teamsters leader and notable missing person Jimmy Hoffa — Al Pacino. It premiered at the New York Film Festival in September to general hosannas and is currently playing a limited engagement at Broadway’s Belasco Theater in New York and in Los Angeles. (The film opens here Nov. 15; the Globe’s review will run then.)
How “The Irishman” came to be a Netflix film says much about the modern movie business. Because of its length and $160 million budget (all that period detail costs money, as did the computerized ”de-aging” needed to make De Niro look younger in the early scenes), Scorsese’s usual studio, Paramount, took a pass on the project. Streaming service Netflix, having successfully dipped its toe in the Oscar-season waters with last year’s “Roma,” gave the legendary filmmaker the green light. And that’s when the dogfights began.
Major movie theater chains like AMC and Regal despise video-on-demand in general and Netflix in particular for eating away at their business; historically, any distributor planning to take a movie to the streaming market within 72 days of its theatrical release has been boycotted by the chains with extreme prejudice.
But a new Scorsese gangster movie? “The Departed” grossed nearly $300 million worldwide in 2006, not a sum the theatrical chains are willing to walk away from, even if a 209-minute running time would mean fewer showings and fewer tickets sold. The director himself was pushing for “The Irishman” to get maximum theatrical exposure, and two major chains, AMC and Cineplex, sat down at a negotiating table with Netflix in August to hammer out a deal.
They failed. The chains reportedly were willing to decrease the VOD window gap to 60 days, but Netflix representatives insisted on 45 days or nothing. The streaming company walked away from the table and announced that “The Irishman” would debut on Netflix Nov. 27, less than a month after its theatrical premiere. Without the chains at its disposal, the film will play independent theaters and art houses; it will screen here at the Kendall Square and the Coolidge Corner.
The response from Hollywood’s old guard has been apoplectic, with John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners trade association, calling Netflix’s move “a disgrace.” And it does seem a little perverse. What entertainment corporation in its right capitalistic mind forgoes millions in theatrical revenue? It’s almost . . . anti-money.
It’s really just anti-movie ticket. Netflix is a subscription-based service, and the business model is all about keeping 158 million subscribers happy for their $12.99 a month. That regular cash pipeline does several things. It puts every movie (and TV show) on a level playing field, with art house fare and B-movies theoretically equal to the biggest blockbusters. And it serves to neutralize the need for audience metrics like theatrical box office and viewership numbers for individual titles, neither of which Netflix makes public. When you’re being paid for all your content, who cares how the individual pieces are faring?
This is further sand in the machinery of the traditional film industry, which for decades has relied on such statistics to do business — to assign monetary value to projects and people and to decide what movies or shows get made or which ones are too risky. According to a source with knowledge of the company’s strategies, the Netflix philosophy is “We want our movies to be watched and judged for what they are and it’s not about keeping score.” This may or may not be just paying lip service, but in a deeply hidebound company town, it’s heresy.
Not at all coincidentally, the director of “The Irishman” has been openly talking about risk, expanding in a New York Times opinion piece on his recent comments regarding Marvel movies and art. “Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption,” Scorsese wrote. “Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”
Like it or not, Netflix is bankrolling and/or distributing some of the year’s riskiest movies. Not just “The Irishman,” but Noah Baumbach’s upcoming “Marriage Story,” with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a couple splitting up, and the Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle “Dolemite Is My Name.“ There’s also "The King,” an expansive Henry V epic, featuring Timothée Chalamet, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” and Cannes Grand Jury winner “Atlantics.” “Dolemite” didn’t open in Boston theaters, but in some cases, on-demand exposure may actually prompt a wider theatrical release. According to the source mentioned above, the longer that “Roma” played on Netflix during last year’s Oscar race, the more calls came in from regional movie houses inquiring about booking the film.
One thing is clear: The big theater chains still don’t get it. People will watch movies where they watch them, and if they don’t want to see a movie in theaters they won’t, regardless of whether it’s available elsewhere. Even a 2018 study funded by Fithian’s NATO concluded that video on demand not only doesn’t cannibalize theatrical box office but may actually complement it — that heavy streamers, it turns out, are also faithful moviegoers. If AMC and Cineplex had acceded to Netflix’s demand for a short 45-day on-demand window, “The Irishman” would be on more big screens where it belongs, the theaters would be making money, and everyone would be happy — moviegoers, Netflix subscribers, and Marty.
Instead, the chains ignored a future that has already become the present. Maybe a best picture Oscar will finally get them to see that.