Netflix Forgoes Wide Release for Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman'

Netflix
'The Irishman'

The streamer and theater owners have been unable to reach a compromise that would allow the star-studded drama to play on thousands of screens across the country.

Not even a Martin Scorsese mob pic could bridge the divide between Netflix and cinema chains.

The streamer will forgo a wide theatrical release for Scorsese's The Irishman in order to make the film available to its subscribers as quickly as possible, a longstanding policy that doesn't fly with exhibitors. There had been rampant speculation that the Oscar-hungry Netflix might further soften its stance in regard to honoring theatrical windows, but in the end, it couldn't reach a compromise with chains including AMC and Cineplex.

The Irishman will open Nov. 1 in select indie cinemas willing to carry the drama. More than three weeks later — or 26 days to be exact — it will debut Nov. 27 on Netflix, much as Alfonso Cuarón's Oscar-nominated Roma did last year. This rules out the sort of big-screen blitz Scorsese and other seasoned directors are used to, unless something changes at the 11th hour. (The Irishman makes its world premiere Sept. 27 at the New York Film Festival, where it's the opening night film.)

Last year, Netflix acknowledged the value of the theatrical experience when announcing that Roma and other Oscar hopefuls would play exclusively in cinemas for two to three weeks before being made available to its subscribers. But that wasn't enough to appease all Oscar voters — or theater chains, which insist on a 90-day window between the time a title opens and is released on home entertainment (for digital sell-through, it can be 74 to 76 days).

When Roma lost the best picture race even while winning best director and best foreign language film, some cited the lack of box office grosses for the snub. According to sources, top Netflix executives and Scorsese himself immediately began a dialogue with theaters to see what could be done for The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.

Scorsese has been nominated for the Oscar for best director eight times, more than any other living director. He's also a proven force at the box office. Hits include The Wolf of Wall Street, which grossed nearly $400 million globally, and the Oscar-winning The Departed ($291 million).

Based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman tells the deathbed story of a mob hit man who claimed to have had a role in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

Earlier this summer, sources say Netflix offered up a 30-day window before talks broke off.

In the weeks just before and after last year's Oscars, some Academy members were debating proposing a rule that would have required a four-week exclusive release for a film to qualify for the industry's highest honors. Ultimately that rule was never proposed, but Netflix's minor expansion of its theatrical window this year suggests the streamer has been willing to inch closer to traditional business models for certain films with awards prospects (Roma's exclusive theatrical window was 23 days).

Last week, AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a statement that talks with Netflix had resumed, but that his company has to be mindful of its studio partners in terms of shortening the window. In the days since, Netflix and AMC weren't able to reach a compromise, according to sources.

Netflix is hardly alone in questioning the validity of the traditional 90-day theatrical window, considering that most films earn the majority of their gross in the first few weeks. And with the rise of other streaming services such as Disney+, the debate is sure to grow louder.

In the meantime, without the support of a chain like AMC, Netflix will continue to be relegated to playing its titles in indie cinemas such as the Landmark, iPic and Laemmle. (Netflix either rents the locations, known as "four walling," or pays generous terms.)

Netflix picked up The Irishman, costing as much as $200 million to produce, after Paramount stepped aside. Scorsese shot the movie on both film and digital and is relying on Industrial Light & Magic to de-age his principal cast for flashback sequences.

The Irishman will play first in cinemas in New York and Los Angeles before expanding into additional markets in the U.S. and the U.K. on Nov. 8. It will further expand on Nov. 15 and Nov. 22, according to Netflix.