The Irishman Theatrical Release

Another year, another battle between Netflix and movie theater chains over a possible awards contender getting a wide theatrical release. Last year, it was Roma that didn’t play in any major theater chains due to Netflix’s desire to get the film on streaming as soon as possible but still meet the desires of director Alfonso CuarĂ³n, who wanted his movie to play on the big screen. This year, it’s Martin Scorsese and his return to mob drama with The Irishman that’s creating a stir between Netflix and movie theater chains.

If you haven’t been keeping up, The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s new movie starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for the film. Here’s how the story is described by Netflix:

The Irishman is an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.

Slated to premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 27, the film doesn’t yet have a release date on Netflix or in theaters, and now we know why. The New York Times has an extensive story on the struggle between Netflix and movie theater chains AMC Theatres and Canada’s Cineplex to come to an agreement over the theatrical rollout for The Irishman.

With a budget of $159 million, largely thanks to the de-aging special effects needed for the film’s stars, the film was never going to find a studio willing to take a risk on a movie like that. But Netflix stepped up to bat, prepared to give Martin Scorsese all the money, time and room he needed to make his latest film. However, the streaming service still finds itself challenged to give the film the theatrical release that Scorsese wants, thanks to the old school distribution traditions that movie theaters are clinging to in the age of fast home video release.

While negotiations with AMC Theatres and Cineplex are ongoing with Netflix, the hold-up is that movie theater chains still want a roughly three month window where The Irishman is exclusively available in theaters before it debuts on streaming. But that’s not how Netflix has been operating, opting to release their hopeful awards contenders in limited theaters for a short window before hitting their streaming library, and some have even arrived day-and-date with the theatrical release. That’s probably why chains like Regal and Cinemark aren’t even trying to strike a deal with Netflix.

Apparently, the negotiations have been going on for months. Talks for a deal even fell apart back in July, but two weeks ago, the theater chains and Netflix were at it again, with each of the chains working on separate deals with the streaming service. But clearly AMC Theatres and Cineplex see that The Irishman would be a movie that brings a lot of people into theaters. After all, Martin Scorsese hasn’t done a mob movie since The Departed in 2006, and that won Best Picture. Plus, there’s the excitement of the filmmaker reuniting with his GoodFellas and Casino stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and throwing Al Pacino into the mix only sweetens the deal.

Netflix has no problem striking deals with smaller movie theater chains like Landmark Theatres and Alamo Drafthouse, showing certain films in theaters for a week before being made available on streaming. Last year’s release of Roma gave Netflix their longest theatrical run yet with a 21-day big screen release preceding the film’s arrival on streaming. And for now, that seems about as long as Netflix is willing to wait before releasing a movie in their library, and that’s still not good enough for movie theaters, especially since this film seems much more commercially viable than a film like Roma.

Analysts think Netflix needs to embrace a wide theatrical release in order to optimize a return on their investment. While smaller movies can easily be profitable by getting released exclusively on Netflix, the company stands to make more money by releasing bigger movies like The Irishman in theaters. But at the same time, it also costs more money to release a movie in theaters for a longer window, and Netflix is hellbent on changing the distribution game and shaking up the traditional theatrical window. But if they aren’t able to give filmmakers the desired theatrical release so their movie can be seen on the big screen by as many people as possible, then they might run into trouble landing big name directors like Martin Scorsese in the future. That’s why Netflix wasn’t able to get director Jon M. Chu to make Crazy Rich Asians for them.

At the end of the day, Netflix wants to give their subscribers something to be excited about that they can only get from Netflix. Meanwhile, movie theater owners want to make sure that the theatrical window isn’t changed for anyone, worried that major studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, Sony, Paramount, and Lionsgate may want shorter theatrical windows for some movies, especially as a couple of those studios are gearing up to have their own streaming services. One of these things will have to change in the near-future, and with streaming becoming increasingly more favorable to audience entertainment desires, it will likely be the studios and movie theaters reconfiguring their business model.

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