When Netflix announced in 2018 that its awards-season films Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Bird Box would play in theaters before debuting online, it was an unusual concession for the company—an acknowledgment that it couldn’t sidestep the theater business forever. Roma played in select cinemas for three weeks, while Scruggs and Bird Box did limited one-week runs. Thus far in 2019, Netflix movies have opened online, as they did before. But now that this year’s Oscar season is upon us, the company is making a more concerted effort to satisfy its top directors and to give their movies a chance to thrive on the big screen.
The problem is that major theater chains have always been skeptical about partnering with Netflix. So while Martin Scorsese’s new crime opus, The Irishman (starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci), will get a theatrical run starting November 1 before hitting Netflix on November 27, it will not play in national cineplexes run by the likes of AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, despite reported efforts to negotiate. Those companies insist on a three-month window of exclusivity for any movies they show, out of a concern that audiences won’t buy tickets to a film they know will be available online in just a few weeks. Netflix executives might have hoped the star power of a big-budget Scorsese gangster epic would be enough to get large chains to change their mind, but it wasn’t—a decision that may be to the companies’ detriment.
Starting with Roma, Netflix has shown a willingness to budge on its initial insistence that all of its original movies be available to subscribers as quickly as possible. Along with The Irishman’s 27-day cinema run, which will happen in independent and art-house theaters around the country, offline releases will happen for films such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (November 6 in theaters, December 6 online), Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat (September 27 in theaters, October 18 online), and the Timothée Chalamet–starring medieval drama The King (October 11 in theaters, November 1 online). The typical window of exclusivity for such films is three weeks to a month—far less than the three months theater chains are demanding.
“The major exhibitors and [the National Association of Theatre Owners, or NATO] remain dug in on the three-month moratorium before films can begin their ancillary runs, an effort to protect their brick-and-mortar businesses,” reported Deadline, which said that the Netflix honchos Ted Sarandos and Spencer Klein had tried to negotiate a deal with theaters and failed. The Irishman is the most appealing bargaining chip Netflix could dangle; even with the knowledge that it would be available online soon, people would buy tickets to experience it in a cinema, and chains such as AMC and Regal could easily sell out showings.
A three-month window is a relatively antiquated concept at this point; blockbuster movies tend to make almost all their money in the first few weeks. Even Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film in history, made 86 percent of its final domestic gross, some $741 million, in three weeks. A bigger problem that theaters are probably considering is what kind of precedent a deal with Netflix would set for other studios that are entering the streaming space in earnest. If members of NATO, the governing body for major exhibitors, negotiated with Netflix, then Disney might want the same deal in order to get its movies to the online Disney+ service more quickly. Warner Bros., which is prepping a streaming app called HBO Max, would want in, too, and so on.
Just like that, the movie business would be inexorably changed, with multiplexes existing only to screen films for a few weeks. That could be the beginning of the end for theaters, part of an inevitable slouch toward the cinematic experience taking place exclusively at home. Theaters, of course, still offer the kind of immersive and communal experience that at-home viewing cannot. But it would be risky for NATO members to allow a one-month window to become the new norm across the industry.
For its part, Netflix will continue to attract major filmmakers and bigger stars, and other studios will begin to announce exclusive online offerings of their own. Unless the prestigious Academy Awards changes its rules to favor a longer theatrical window (something that was briefly mulled and then shut down this year), Netflix can continue operating as it does, relying on indie theaters to screen its movies and make them eligible for Oscars. A film on the scale of The Irishman should have been seismic enough, in terms of potential profit, to tempt exhibitors. But for now the stalemate continues.
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