Martin Scorsese: "We Can’t Depend on the Movie Business … to Take Care of Cinema"

Martin Scorsese
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

The Oscar-winning director writes a Harper's cover story calling "to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners" of classic films "that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away."

In a lengthy essay published Tuesday in Harper's magazine, Martin Scorsese made his case that cinema, as he sees it, is not an all-inclusive term by highlighting his admiration for Italian film director and screenwriter Federico Fellini.

In 2019, Scorsese drew the ire of Marvel fans when he asserted that Marvel superhero films are not cinema. The Taxi Driver and Goodfellas director stood by the comments and defended them when Marvel directors, stars and fans blasted him.

On Tuesday, he made his case for cinema (albeit never referencing Marvel by name), writing in his Harper's op-ed: "As recently as fifteen years ago, the term 'content' was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against 'form.' Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should."

Scorsese wrote, in his opinion, that content is now a "business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode."

Speaking to the theatrical experience, the Departed filmmaker argued that the notion of content is now linked to streaming platforms. "On the one hand, this has been good for filmmakers, myself included. On the other hand, it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is 'suggested' by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?"

Calling the late Fellini "cinema’s virtuoso," Scorsese wrote, "Everything has changed — the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as [Jean-Luc] Godard, [Ingmar] Bergman, [Stanley] Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time. But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted."

He continued, "We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word 'business,' and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property — in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the 'Art Film' swim lane on a streaming platform."

In his closing, Scorsese wrote it was up to those who loved and respected cinema, as he laid out, "to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly."

Read Scorsese's entire cover story here.