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Martin Scorsese Netflixed: Did He Sell Out?

How to think about a legendary movie directors disturbing distribution compromise in order to get his $200 million art film made, even if it flies in the face of his past advocacy for the movie theater experience

Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest movie directors in cinema history and one of the most personally generous and charitable to a number of causes close to his heart, especially film preservation. He has long been a hero of mine for his movies, his preservation efforts and his character.

That is why I found myself troubled and asking questions about the devils bargain he made to get The Irishman made, which seems to compromises some of the worthy values he has spoken of in the past. Is this the deal he had to make to get $200 million to make a three and a half hour art film, that is brilliantly acted but too long?

The Irishman, broadened out last week from a handful of U.S. theaters where it was seen by thousands for 26 days, to Netflix, making, which made it available to millions of subscribers worldwide.

The move left fans who love the scale and communal experience of out of home viewing, disappointed.

The major theater owners, circuits like AMC and Regal. ,boycotted The Irishman, because it would not observe a reasonable 3-month window before electronic release. That is what the beleaguered movie exhibitors believe is their final red line, to help keep major theater businesses alive that often set the agenda for all movie platforms from streaming to syndication worldwide.

Netflix refused, offering it exclusively for 30 days. So, it has played only in specialty and independent theaters in a handful of cities that play so called “day and date” movies. That means they premiere in theaters and on digital around the same time.

In effect, Netflix has thumbed its nose at those exhibitors – a blow to an already endangered species. Scorsese may lament that, but it clearly seems he did what he had to do to get his movie financed and made, and now is shrugging off the criticism.

This came to mind when KNBC’s award-winning anchor and newsman Ted Chen asked me whether Scorsese in this case is walking a fine line., and possibly crossing it.

Ted was referring to comments Scorsese made in October in an interview with the British film magazine Empire. He was asked about Marvel movies in the wake of Avengers End Game becoming the biggest grossing movie in the U.S. of the modern era.

“They’re not cinema,” Scorsese said. “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

The director pictured with Netflix man in Hollywood, Ted Sarandos, in a smart graphic from The Hollywood Reporter

In the New York Times, Nov. 4, he clarified his remarks, blaming mindless superhero movies for hogging available movie theater screens, taking away many worthwhile movies.

“So, you might ask, what’s my problem?” asked Scorsese rhetorically. “Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped, and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.”

“That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make “The Irishman” the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course, I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

Manuela Lazic raised these questions for The Ringer on Aug. 27, after news broke about the deal with the devil it appeared Scorsese had made. The headline:

“Martin Scorsese, ‘The Irishman,’ and the Cost of Doing Business With Netflix” with the dek: “Tuesday’s news that the iconic director’s next film—starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—won’t screen in major theaters underlies the tension every filmmaker faces in the streaming age.”

“That even Scorsese, at once one of the most celebrated American auteurs and one of the most bankable, couldn’t inspire Netflix and chains to get past their differences is not a good sign for cinephiles who still prefer the big-screen experience to Netflix-and-chilling,” wrote Lazic. “It is also bad news for the directors who care about format and a certain kind of film viewership; unsurprisingly, Netflix isn’t prioritizing the beautiful imperfection of grainy 35 mm projection, nor the communal, church-like experience of sitting in the dark with strangers. What counts for the media giant is its number of subscribers; the questions of what they might actually be watching or in what conditions come second.”

It is very difficult to get a movie like The Irishman made and allow a director to maintain a personal vision, as happened here, but the compromises involved are still troubling.

Scorsese’s place in cinema history is secure but this was not his finest moment. What he is saying is that to get the reported $200 mil The Irishman cost – after being cut off by Paramount and turned down by several other majors- he chooses to look the other way as Netflix snubs big U.S. exhibitors.

The Irishman was initially to be distributed domestically by Paramount,. It was also acquired by Media Asia in China, and by STX Entertainment, in some international markets. Instead, after Paramount refused to bankroll expensive technology to de-age the star actors, it was Netflix that bought the expensive deal to play worldwide.

As huge a Scorsese fan, unfortunately, it does seem to be a case of moohlah over morality.

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