When Martin Scorsese signed with Netflix to make “The Irishman,” a star-studded epic scheduled to have its premiere on the opening night of the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27, he put himself in the crossfire of the so-called streaming wars.
The film, which may represent Scorsese’s grandest statement yet on the intersection of organized crime and American politics, is expected to be a strong contender in the 2020 Oscar race. He took his $159 million movie, with Robert De Niro in the lead role, to Netflix after his home studio of recent years, Paramount Pictures, balked at the budget.
But where, exactly, moviegoers will be able to see “The Irishman” isn’t clear, and it won’t be until the discussions between Netflix and select major theater chains end. And no one is willing to predict when that might be. They have been dragging on for months with little reported progress.
The negotiations are just the latest chapter in the conflict between the film industry’s old guard and the tech-driven upstarts.
“The Irishman,” a throwback to the 1990s Scorsese hits “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” was announced more than a decade ago at Paramount. After the project went nowhere, Scorsese struck the deal with Netflix in 2017, and filming started soon afterward.
In his ninth collaboration with Scorsese, De Niro plays the title character, Frank Sheeran, a hit man known as the Irishman who claimed that he killed Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, whose body has never been found. He is joined in the cast by “Goodfellas” and “Casino” alumnus Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to play mob boss Russell Bufalino. Al Pacino — appearing for the first time in a film directed by Scorsese — portrays Hoffa.
Scott Stuber, the head of Netflix’s film division, is holding talks with at least two large movie theater chains, AMC and Cineplex, according to people familiar with negotiations. Two other large chains, Regal and Cinemark, responded to inquiries by saying that they are not in discussions over the movie.
Netflix, Scorsese and Cineplex declined to comment for this report. AMC issued a statement saying it’s talking to Netflix about several movies, including this one, “but the outcome of those conversations is not yet clear.”
Timing a major issue
One of the hangups appears to be the ongoing dispute over theater chains’ insistence on a three-month theatrical window before a movie is available for streaming. Netflix’s reluctance to concern itself with box-office numbers reflects its laser focus on its main mission: delivering streaming video on demand to its 151 million subscribers worldwide.
“Netflix is in the subscriber happiness business,” said Richard Greenfield, a tech and media analyst. “They need to attract more members and make current members happier.”
The vast majority of Netflix shows are made for living-room viewing. But it has also come out with more ambitious offerings, such as “Roma,” the meditative black-and-white film from director Alfonso Cuarón that won Oscars for best director, best cinematography and best foreign language film.
As Netflix’s movie division has matured, the company has softened its stance on theatrical distribution. Last year, it struck deals with independent movie houses and small theatrical chains including Landmark and Alamo Drafthouse, which have looser requirements than the big exhibitors. The Sandra Bullock thriller “Bird Box” and the Coen brothers’ western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” were released that way.
Scorsese reportedly has lobbied for a wide release of “The Irishman.” When he agreed to make the film for Netflix, he was aware that such a release was not guaranteed, but he chose the company because it was “actually making our movies, from a place of respect and love for cinema,” he said last year.
Can Netflix cash in?
The trailers for “The Irishman” released over the summer have racked up millions of YouTube views, suggesting that it has great commercial potential. The box office revenue generated by a hit movie could be a boon for a company whose stock fell by 12% in July after it reported its first decline in domestic subscribers since 2011.
Oscar eligibility is not much of a factor in how Netflix handles the rollout. To qualify for the Academy Awards, a film must have a seven-day run in a commercial theater in Los Angeles County, according to rules recently confirmed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors. But there’s a loophole: It can be shown on another platform — i.e., via streaming — at the same time.
Both sides on the streaming wars have to move cautiously. Netflix doesn’t want to alienate its subscribers by cutting them off from the shows they want to see. And the large theater chains worry that if they grant Netflix a shorter theatrical window, they will have to do the same for other studios, including Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Sony, Paramount and Lionsgate — the providers who are the lifeblood of their business.
“Both the studios and the exhibitors have to look at every aspect of how we do business together and figure out different paradigms to move it forward,” said Chris Aronson, the former chief distribution executive at 20th Century Fox.