When it was first announced that Martin Scorsese was making a movie for Netflix, the industry was understandably taken aback. The streaming service had been ramping up its original films production by backing new movies from directors like Bong Joon-ho, David Ayer, and Noah Baumbach. But Scorsese? One of the greatest filmmakers of all time, who’s also one of the greatest cinema advocates of all time? Folks were still skeptical about Netflix’s impact on the industry, and the streaming service’s at-the-time disinterest in theatrical distribution made the move quite surprising. But as it turns out, Scorsese was kind of out of options.
In a new piece on The Irishman over at Variety, details of how Scorsese’s critically acclaimed three-and-a-half-hour epic drama landed at Netflix have been revealed. The film—which is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses and charts a hitman’s life and career over a 40-year span—was originally set up at Paramount Pictures, where Scorsese previously made The Wolf of Wall Street. But in 2017, with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci all attached to star, Paramount and co-financier STX began to feel uncomfortable about the film’s financial investment.
Costs were ballooning largely due to the digital de-aging effects that would be necessary to allow De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci to plays versions of their characters that were 40, 30, and 20 years younger. And unlike, say, Captain Marvel, the de-aging technology was not going hand-in-hand with superhero spectacle, so the box office prospects were unlikely to recoup the costs. So the filmmaking team reached out to Netflix, who was then more than happy to cover what would amount to a $175 million budget. Scorsese explains the move:
“We needed to make an expensive picture,” says Scorsese. “The movie business is changing hour by hour — not necessarily for the better — and many of the places we would have gone to for funding in the past were no longer viable. Then we started talking to Netflix. We agreed on everything, most importantly that we all wanted to make the same movie. So we went forward.” Emma Tillinger Koskoff, one of the film’s producers, notes that other players seemed reticent to commit to the movie full-bore, perhaps sensing the difficulties it would face in recouping its costs through ticket sales. “In terms of budget and scope, it was much more appetizing to Netflix than to a traditional studio,” she says.
Indeed, it’s also important to keep in mind that when Scorsese was editing The Wolf of Wall Street, the film was coming in very long and Paramount was uncomfortable releasing a movie any longer than three hours in length—which is why that movie runs at exactly three hours long. So one can imagine even beyond the budget constraints, a traditional studio would almost certainly be unwilling to let Scorsese release The Irishman in theaters at its current runtime of 209 minutes.
So Scorsese made The Irishman at Netflix largely because it was the only place the movie could get made, but that didn’t mean he sat back and acquiesced to the streaming service’s “online-only” model. Indeed, starting last year filmmakers like Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, and the Coen Brothers lobbied Netflix to work harder to make their movies available in theaters, and 2018’s Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs finally broke Netflix’s in-house rule that their films could only be released day-and-day in theaters. Previously, the streaming service contended that its subscribers would be upset if Netflix content was available in theaters before it was on Netflix, but the streaming service finally did away with this nonsensical defense and released Roma in select theaters about three weeks before it hit Netflix.
But Scorsese had hoped The Irishman would be available in more theaters, for a longer period of time before hitting Netflix. All the major theater chains have a strict rule that says a film must not be released digitally for 90 days after it opens in theaters, and if it does, they’ll refuse to show it, because the sooner it’s available online means the fewer people who will buy a ticket at a theater. Netflix reportedly got pretty deep into negotiations with major theater chains, offering to put The Irishman in theaters for 45 days before going on Netflix and giving exhibitors up to 75% of the ticket sales. Unfortunately, the major chains wouldn’t budge, and The Irishman will now only be released in smaller, largely independent theaters 26 days before it goes on Netflix.
While that’s short of the goal, it’s still a step in the right direction, and it’s important to consider that just two years ago Netflix was holding fast to its day-and-date rule. It’s not hard to imagine we’re inching closer to a better compromise, especially as more and more filmmakers head to Netflix to get their passion projects made as traditional studios shy away from risky financial investments. Indeed, the mere announcement that Scorsese was making a movie for Netflix spurred significant interest from other filmmakers:
“After we announced the deal, I had so many filmmakers reach out to ask about coming to work with us,” says Scott Stuber, head of Netflix’s feature film division. “We recognize that this is a big conversion for them, but we want to support the greatest filmmakers.”
At this point it feels like we’re merely in a game of chicken between Netflix and theatrical exhibitors, and it’s only a matter of time before that traditional 90-day window shortens across the board as moviegoers then pick and choose which movies they want to see on the big screen and which movies they’re going to watch at home. And you know what? That’s not a terrible thing. If shortening this window is what it takes to make films like The Irishman and Roma available on the big screen across the country, let’s do it. It’s not like theatrical exhibitors are clamoring to exhibit more foreign-language films or character dramas—superhero movies and franchises still largely rule the box office, after all. So if Netflix is what it takes to bring adult movies back to theaters in a big way, let’s go for it.