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Martin Scorsese, ‘The Irishman,’ and the Cost of Doing Business With Netflix

Tuesday’s news that the iconic director’s next film—starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—won’t screen in major theaters underlies the tension every filmmaker faces in the streaming age

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What about if it falls in front of many people, but at the same time as a million other trees, in a sort of wooden deluge? Some would say this is what it is like to have a film land on Netflix without ever screening in theaters—many people may be aware of the movie’s availability online, but just as many may lose track of it in a sea of content. In any case, no one will never know just how many people did watch said film, since Netflix doesn’t release viewing numbers. Just a lonesome tree drowned out in a cacophony of thumping sounds.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman might just be the next invisible fallen tree in this (admittedly elaborate) metaphor. On Tuesday, along with the long-awaited news of a release date—November 1 in (some) theaters, November 27 on Netflix—The Hollywood Reporter revealed that the streamer, which picked up the film after Paramount refused to further finance its very costly de-aging CGI effects, had failed to reach a distribution deal with theater chains such as AMC and Cineplex. Reportedly, the standstill between Netflix and major exhibitors stemmed from money, of course, but also from cinema chains’ traditional requirement of a period of 90 days between a film’s theater opening and its release on home entertainment. Netflix reportedly offered to keep The Irishman in theaters for 30 days before making it available on their platform, which was rejected. Simply, all of this means that the film, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino (finally reunited), Joe Pesci, and countless other stars, will be viewable only on the streaming platform and in a scant few independent cinemas, most likely only the ones that Netflix itself rents out.

That even Scorsese, at once one of the most celebrated American auteurs and one of the most bankable, couldn’t inspire Netflix and chains to get past their differences is not a good sign for cinephiles who still prefer the big-screen experience to Netflix-and-chilling. It is also bad news for the directors who care about format and a certain kind of film viewership; unsurprisingly, Netflix isn’t prioritizing the beautiful imperfection of grainy 35 mm projection, nor the communal, churchlike experience of sitting in the dark with strangers. What counts for the media giant is its number of subscribers; the questions of what they might actually be watching or in what conditions come second. That Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018), a film shot in black and white and full of long takes, was released in a few theaters but then viewed by most people on their TVs or computers, is a telling irony.

But there are a couple of understandable (if not exactly “good”) reasons filmmakers may consider Netflix as a distributor for their work. If you can’t have bums on seats, the platform at least guarantees (an undisclosed but admittedly large number of) eyes on screens. And unlike classic studios, Netflix is apparently more than willing to spend gargantuan sums on its projects. Coming at $200 million, The Irishman marks Scorsese’s biggest budget to date. While making a movie has always been expensive, it is even more so in an era when cinema audiences have been dwindling steadily: The chances of making a profit at the box office are minuscule, unless you’re making a superhero film or one about big guys in big cars. It’s not so hard to understand how filmmakers—especially young ones—might be seduced by a reasonable offer from the not-at-all stingy Netflix. In 2017, the studio spent $5 million on the documentary Icarus, the biggest Sundance deal ever made for a nonfiction film. After a short awards-qualifying run in theaters, Icarus went on to win Best Documentary Feature at the 2018 Oscars. “Netflix has single-handedly changed the documentary world,” its director, Bryan Fogel, said in his acceptance speech. “It was a no-brainer decision. I’m honored that this is their film.” But a small documentary film is not the same as a starry, big-budget drama from Scorsese. If nonfiction films have benefited from the rise of streaming platforms, it is difficult to say whether the same is true for auteur fiction cinema. The disruption that streaming has caused in the film industry is wide-ranging, from filmmakers and actors no longer getting revenues dependent on box office results, to the strange obsolescence of ad campaigns for films that will be forever available online. (Netflix relies on word of mouth in a way that theaters cannot afford to, since they need the film to do well in its first weekend in order to determine whether it is worth showing for more weeks.)

One director has decided not only to see the (cut) forest for the (falling) trees, but to make it his first concern. Steven Soderbergh’s 2019 sports drama High Flying Bird managed to stand out from other content thanks to his willingness to talk about his process to the press, but also because he espoused the Netflix format and its possibilities. Coming a year after his HBO-released interactive film Mosaic, High Flying Bird continued Soderbergh’s experiments with evolving technology and viewing habits. Beautifully shot on iPhone and boasting a talented and mostly black cast, the film simultaneously functioned as an allegory for Netflix’s impact on the cinema industry itself, using the NBA as a stand-in for the film industry. No one but Netflix could have made High Flying Bird possible—an irony that the platform must have been fully aware of. By acknowledging and embracing the changes he was facing, Soderbergh was able to rise above them.

Despite the groundbreaking de-aging technology that promises to restore De Niro’s Casino good looks, The Irishman almost looks like an old-fashioned Hollywood production: a period gangster film likely to have a few Rolling Stones–scored murder sequences, it’s nothing like High Flying Bird or Icarus. But like those films, it couldn’t have seen the light of day were it not for the streaming giant’s deep pockets. In the 1990s, small, independent producers would occasionally rescue films abandoned at the last minute by their discouraged big studios (this happened to Jacob’s Ladder, for instance, another film that required groundbreaking special effects). But nowadays, Netflix and its competing platforms have mostly replaced such saviors, with some even praising the studio/distributor for supporting the arts like the independents used to. The difference here: Netflix has more cash to spend, and essentially distributes its films to itself. The guardian angel has become more possessive.

Major exhibitors’ resistance to Netflix, even for such a highly anticipated film as The Irishman, speaks to how terrifyingly deafening the deluge has become, and how confident the platform, in turn, now is. Theater chains seem discouraged, as though they truly no longer believe that Scorsese can get people off their couches and into theaters while knowing they can eventually access his work from their living room. With countless Netflix-distributed films making very variable amounts of money in the few theaters they were shown in, the anxiety and anger of distributors is understandable. But it is worth pondering whether The Irishman could have been sold by theater chains as a cinematic event, rather than just another movie to see on the big screen—at once a trip down memory lane and a surreal jump into a future featuring old actors who look young again. The Irishman could have been a bridge between the past and the future of theater-going. Perhaps, at least, small independent cinemas will somehow benefit from this standstill between chains and Netflix, and welcome all the stubborn viewers who want to help auteur films make a sound in the forest.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.