Business as Usual? Netflix Follows ‘The Irishman’ Model for ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

"The Trial of the Chicago 7," the first of this fall's Netflix awards contenders, will debut in Chicago and Boston theaters Friday.
"The Trial of the Chicago 7"
Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

After a grim weekend where new specialized releases including “The Secrets We Keep” (Bleecker Street) and “The Way I See It” (Focus) could only find a handful of patrons, Netflix is springing a last-minute major release. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which debuts on the streamer October 16, will open in at least eight theaters on September 25 starting with Landmark Theatres’ Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. and Chicago’s Century Centre as well as Alamo Drafthouse theaters in the Phoenix area (Tempe and Chandler), Austin (Slaughter Lane and Lakeline) and outlying D.C. (Loudon and Woodbridge in Virginia). More locations may be added for the Friday opening.

A source confirms additional cities will open on the two subsequent Fridays, as well as some international dates, with more theaters added when the film begins its online availability October 16. Of course, these initial dates will not include Netflix’s own Paris Theatre in New York, which remains closed as do the major markets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Three weeks in theaters prior to online availability has been standard for Netflix since the release of “Roma” two years ago. With very little notice, Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking About Ending Things” opened in a handful of locations August 28, one week before its Netflix premiere. (Its truncated theatrical release was predicated on key theaters still being closed.)

Like all distributors, COVID-19 forces Netflix to improvise; as a streamer, it has more flexibility. Even in the best of times, its goal is exposure, publicity, and awards qualification, not revenue.

Ironically, the September 25 opening date for “Trial” was the release date Paramount initially chose — before the studio sold it to Netflix. The awards-titles starting gun usually fires in late September, but most distributors are choosing to keep a foot on the starting line. Netflix, however, appears to be proceeding apace.

Based on how Netflix expanded titles in prior years, it appears that cities like Dallas, Denver, Atlanta and others with Landmark theaters (along with some from other chains and independents) will see “Trial” before their coastal counterparts. For a major awards offering, that is nearly unprecedented.

As usual, but now particularly unfortunate: Grosses will not be reported. Any signs of positive audience interest in important specialized films will be for Netflix to know and for us to find out.

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