Coming soon to a streaming service near you: The Irishman and the battle for big-screen access

Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman is the latest battle in the fight for the future of cinema. Major movie chains don't want to let streaming services open movies and then release them online shortly after, but industry watchers say the fight is hurting movie fans and leaving money on the table.

Critics are hailing the crime movie as a masterpiece, but major chains are locking it out of the multiplex

Director Martin Scorsese at the October premiere of his film The Irishman, in Los Angeles, California. The three and a half hour epic is premiering on Friday, though only in select theatres. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

In his recent New York Times editorial about Marvel movies, Martin Scorsese writes "it's a perilous time," and he's right.

Film fans can quibble about whether Thanos shedding a purple tear in Avengers: Infinity War is cinema, but the fact is for an increasing majority of moviegoers, the only films worth leaving home for are brand-name blockbusters with built-in name recognition. 

Take a look at the current top 20 films of 2019

There are only two original titles: Jordan Peele's Us and Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  

And now a new entry. 

The Irishman is a movie from Scorsese about a hitman — played by Robert De Niro — grappling with his misdeeds and mortality.

This image released by Netflix shows Joe Pesci, left, and Robert De Niro in a scene from The Irishman. The star-studded film utilizes extensive CGI to de-age De Niro. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix/The Associated Press)

With a running time of three and a half hours, The Irishman asks a lot of audiences. But if you're hoping to catch it at the local multiplex, you're out of luck. The film is opening first in Toronto on Friday and eventually select Canadian cities, playing in limited engagement at independently owned theatres before appearing on Netflix at the end of the month. 

A far cry from when Scorsese's Oscar-winning film The Departed opened in more than 3,000 cinemas across North America. 

"Martin Scorsese makes movies you have to see in a movie theatre," said Cameron Bailey, the co-head and artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is screening the new film at its Toronto theatre.

He described with relish the way Scorsese combines editing and music and camera movements.

"When you're fully immersed in that, watching it at home, you won't get the full impact."

Cameron Bailey, co-head and artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, believes — despite the limited run — that the only way to experience the film is at a cinema. (Getty Images)

But speaking for Canada's largest theatre chain, Cineplex, Sarah Van Lange said The Irishman won't be playing at Cineplex locations because the company was unable to reach a licensing agreement with Netflix.

That is unfortunate because The Irishman is a film that deserves to be seen without distractions. The epic running time is very much part of the experience. As De Niro's character Frank ages, the picture transmutes into a deeper experience about an elderly man reflecting on his life and grappling with his violent misdeeds.

But when it came to finding a studio to fund a story that spanned decades, with an A-list cast and visual de-aging effects, none of the major ones were interested. 

"We couldn't get the backing, there's no way," Scorsese said, speaking at the New York Film Festival. 

He said he tried to get the funding for years and ultimately it was Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix, who agreed.  

But by signing on with the streaming-service-turned-studio, The Irishman was caught in the battle between theatre chains protecting their turf and Netflix's very different business model.

Turf wars, and a missed opportunity

Patrick Corcoran, vice-president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, says on average there is a window of 97 days between the theatrical release of a film and the home release. According to media reports, Netflix had been pushing for a 30- to 45-day window for The Irishman and the major theatre chains were countering with 60.   

Corcoran sees the failure to come to terms as a major missed opportunity. Movies have "a home" in theatres, he notes, but streaming services are also seeking a competitive advantage to attract viewers.

"Martin Scorsese really wanted a wide theatrical release and one of the things that makes that possible is the theatrical release window," he said. "If you're going for a mass audience you need to have the opportunity to maximize that audience." 

Corcoran says if theatres are going to commit screens to a title such as The Irishman, longer windows give audiences a chance to discover the film. He points to the success of Joker, which opened in October and is still in theatres.  

"Nobody was expecting that to make a billion dollars around the world. It's not the feel-good hit of the summer. So what you have is the opportunity for something to find its audience."  

But in a recent interview at a New York Times conference, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made the company's priorities clear. Namely, keeping subscribers happy. 

Serving subscribers, not big screens

"We're not in the business of theatres," Hastings said. "We're in the business of pleasing our members on a global basis. So when we produce a great film like … The Irishman, we want to get it out to our members. We don't mind theatres ... but they wanted an exclusive window, which would delay a release on Netflix."

Representatives for Netflix say the conversation around theatrical windows is continuing. In the meantime, most Canadians will experience The Irishman from the comfort of their couch or on their phones, rather than in the cathedral of cinema as Scorsese envisioned.

"In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen," Scorsese wrote in his editorial.

But by partnering with Netflix, the big-screen ubiquity of franchise films like the Avengers series remains uncontested. 

The Irishman opens on Netflix Nov. 27. 


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars red carpet and beyond.  


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