Martin Scorsese has been a longtime advocate for film preservation, so it’s slightly ironic that his next film, The Irishman, may bypass theaters entirely on its way to Netflix. Netflix picked up the worldwide distribution rights for the film, which is based on the true story of hit-man Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. The film has a reported production budget of at least $125 million to handle the visual special effects of de-aging the cast members.
According to Variety, Scorsese has asked Netflix for a theatrical commitment for the movie when it’s released in 2019, and that “Scott Stuber, Netflix’s film division chief, has assured Scorsese that the film will have a minimum two-week theatrical window.” However, “Netflix head of film publicity Julie Fontaine told Variety that ‘it’s premature to say anything at this point’ with regards to the film’s distribution. Variety notes that even if the film does get a theatrical release, it will likely follow the model of other limited theatrical releases from Netflix where the movie will hit theaters the same day it arrives on Netflix as was the case earlier this year with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Okja.
Based on the pedigree of the project and Scorsese’s standing, I think a theatrical release is likely, but it will likely be the limited variety and one where people can still catch the film on Netflix the day-and-date of release. That’s unfortunate, but that’s Netflix’s model. They’re not in the business of sending people to the theater; they’re in the business of making sure subscribers stay home and watch Netflix. They’re not like Amazon Studios where they’ll buy a film, give it a regular indie release, and then keep it on their streaming platform, which might be to the service’s detriment. On the one hand, they get more content, but on the other hand, no one knows why they should watch it. Yes, I’m sure there will be some marketing and they can highlight that it’s a Scorsese film, but Amazon can push acclaimed titles like Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick because those titles have room to earn acclaim. Everything Netflix distributes just fades into the Netflix Content Machine.
In an ideal world, a major studio wouldn’t balk at the price tag for a Scorsese film as Paramount did when they saw how much the effects would cost on The Irishman. But also in an ideal world, a Scorsese movie wouldn’t gross just $23 million worldwide as was the case with the director’s last film, Silence. The business realities being what they are, we’re probably looking at a day-and-date limited theatrical release for The Irishman.