Martin Scorsese’s decision to make “The Irishman,” his upcoming Robert De Niro/Al Pacino crime drama, for Netflix sent a shockwave through the industry. Here was a titan of American cinema who has steeped his career in the power of the big screen experience, working with a digital studio that almost certainly doesn’t share his passion for theaters. By the time Scorsese started production in late 2017, the Cannes Film Festival — which has celebrated the filmmaker for decades — had already banned Netflix-produced movies from its venerated competition, after French exhibitors complained about the company’s lack of interest in theatrical distribution. Whose side was Scorsese on?
The jury’s still out on that question, but the filmmaker has started to explore ways of grappling with the digital frontier even as he continues to treasure the traditional moviegoing process. At an event in New York this past week to unveil the latest “Story of Movies” syllabus produced by his nonprofit the Film Foundation, Scorsese stopped short of discussing “The Irishman,” but did delve into the changing nature of viewer habits when asked about the value of watching movies in theaters.
“You can still study if it’s taken out of its original context,” he said, speaking during a press conference with several collaborators on the Story of Film project. “I learned that from watching the worst prints of black-and-white TV with commercials. The first time I saw ‘Citizen Kane’ was on ‘Million Dollar Movie’ on Channel 9 for a week with the March of Time sequence cut out. So when I saw it in a theater it was even more surprising to me.”
The Film Foundation’s latest syllabus, “Portraits of America: Democracy on Film,” has been designed for schools across the country under the understanding that not every classroom will have the ability to show movies on a big screen. “Now, is it the ideal condition for films that were made in that system?” Scorsese asked. He recalled how, in his youth, “they had to be shown in certain ways — people went to a movie, it wasn’t something you could choose or pick up, or walk out of the room. You actually made a commitment. It was a different experience.”
He drew a sharp contrast with contemporary digital platforms, specifically social media. “For a while, you had younger people watching these things called Vines, which were two minutes or whatever,” he said. “That’s also narrative, made for that medium. Nevertheless, the ideal would be to see cinema in its proper context … It’s a problem of pure concentration.”
Scorsese stopped short of discussing the plan for “The Irishman,” which will reportedly receive some kind of theatrical release, though the specifics remain unclear. However, he did acknowledge the changing nature of filmmaking in the digital age. “Films are being made directly for the digital medium,” he said. “You can shoot a film on an iPhone, you can do anything, really. It is a complete revolution. The old system is gone, in a sense … It’d be wonderful to see ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in 70mm on a curved screen, but not everybody’s going to do that at this point.”
As for the titles on the Story of Movies syllabus, the director argued that they should be effective in an educational environment regardless of the way they’re presented to students. “Whether they’re seeing them in a theater, classroom, television, a streaming device, or whatever,” he said, “it’s not only the subject matter of the film and why the film was made at that time, but how it was made, why these choices were made. You can still study it if it’s taken out of its original context.”