Netflix will give Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” a November 1 theatrical release, followed by the Netflix premiere Wednesday, November 27. Anticipation is high for the Oscar contender, but there’s one thing “The Irishman” can’t do: Convince major theater chains that it’s worth making an exception for its three-month theatrical window.
At this writing, it’s unclear how many screens will see Scorsese’s handiwork and the FX de-aging of its stars, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. On November 1, it will open in Los Angeles and New York, followed by a platform release in the U.S. and the U.K. November 8, adding more theaters each weekend on November 15 and November 22. When it premieres on Netflix November 27, it will see “an expanded theatrical release in the U.S. and international markets.”
As to where “The Irishman” will be seen, it seems likely that Netflix will cobble together a network of independent theaters similar to what “Roma” saw last year. (And terms for these bookings, often four-walls, are expensive.)
As IndieWire box office reporter Tom Brueggemann wrote earlier this year, Netflix’s “Roma” played for more than 15 weeks, never seeing more than 125 theaters in any week:
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Not only did the three top exhibitors (AMC, Regal, and Cinemark) refuse to play “Roma,” others followed suit. These boycotts included Pacific Theaters, whose Southern California Arclight locations are particularly significant players in specialized films, as well as other top regional circuits. Add locations like BAM Cinema in Brooklyn, City Cinemas (these include Angelika Cinemas) and these missed opportunities probably represent $1 million or more.
Netflix wanted to handle its premier Oscar contender differently this year. Netflix film division head Scott Stuber spent months trying to make inroads with those top three chains, luring them with the charms of the all-star big-budget gangster epic. Didn’t they want Scorsese in their theaters?
Studios watched with interest as Netflix tried several approaches. Tiered pricing for big-ticket movies vs. smaller titles didn’t get get far. Nor did the idea of letting a movie go to streaming as soon as theaters threw out a film for not performing, changing the percentage split for a shorter exclusive window, or meeting the exhibitors halfway with a 45-day exclusive run.
Rooting for Netflix from the sidelines were the studios: At this point, almost all of them are following Netflix headlong into the streaming world and they are desperate for a middleman like Netflix to use its first-mover advantage to break this exhibition logjam. Their filmmakers want theaters, Oscar voters want theaters, and if theaters refuse to budge as the world changes, the logic goes, they risk being left in the rearview.
Ultimately, none of this worked for the chains. Of course, they want the Scorsese movie — but not at the risk of setting precedent by breaking the 90-day theatrical exclusive window. They don’t want to take the chance with their stockholders, who might perceive those moves as a tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the exhibitors’ own business model.
So although Netflix has convinced some exhibitors that it is not the enemy, Stuber could not convince the majority with “The Irishman.”
All of this comes as Netflix struggles with the perception that the disruptor is facing a major disruption of its own. It’s months away from facing gale-force competition from Disney+, Apple+, and HBO Max, and this last weekend saw Disney announce a tsunami of brand-name streaming content to hordes of screaming fans at D23. (Once upon a time, Netflix described its competition as sleep and Fortnite.)
Meanwhile, its stock price has yet to recover from a second quarter that saw it miss its own subscription forecasts by a large margin; for that, Netflix blamed a weaker content slate.
Beyond Netflix’s own travails, this release strategy is bittersweet at best. There will be audiences who want to see Scorsese on the big screen and can’t. While it will be booked into the best-available theaters, the film will be deprived of some of the top locations. And finally, it’s a missed opportunity, for studios and exhibitors, to learn what works in a rapidly changing world. By holding firm, it’s teaching even more moviegoers to stay home with Netflix — or the other streamers of their choice.