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Netflix Won’t Confirm Theatrical Release for Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images
Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images

When Martin Scorsese first took his next project to Netflix, it raised more than a few eyebrows. It seemed odd that Scorsese, an outspoken advocate for the theatrical viewing experience and film preservation, would give his new movie to a streaming service. But according to early reports, part of the deal for The Irishman was an agreement to release the film theatrically — giving Netflix a chance to vie for that coveted Oscar and satisfying Scorsese’s artistic integrity. It’s awfully strange, then, that Netflix has yet to confirm a theatrical release for The Irishman.

Julie Fontaine, head of Netflix film publicity, even went so far as to tell Variety that “it’s premature to say anything at this point” with regards to the theatrical release plan for Scorsese’s long-developing mob drama. The Irishman reunites the prolific director with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (begrudgingly dragged out of retirement for the project), who star opposite Al Pacino in the film based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses.

The story centers on Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who recounts his career as a hit man for Jimmy Hoffa and claims to know the truth behind the notorious mobster’s disappearance. De Niro will play Sheeran in scenes set in both the present and the past, with Scorsese employing Industrial Light & Magic to de-age the actor, Benjamin Button-style, for flashbacks. It’s a costly visual effects process that’s taken the film’s budget from $100 million to $125 million, according to producer Gaston Pavlovich, who notes that it could still go even higher.

Those numbers were enough to scare Paramount off the project, which Scorsese has been developing for almost a decade. Despite the director’s concerns with the streaming industry, he took The Irishman to Netflix, which agreed to his budget and, as previously reported, his insistence on releasing the film in theaters.

That Netflix would agree to such terms isn’t surprising; the company has given other recent prestige films, like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a limited theatrical run to qualify for awards season. But Netflix also makes those films available to stream at home the same day they hit theaters. Sources tell Variety that Netflix guaranteed a “minimum two-week theatrical window” for The Irishman, which is expected to arrive in 2019.

Unfortunately for Scorsese, his passion project will also likely arrive on Netflix the same day. And though Netflix isn’t particularly concerned with viewership numbers and ratings (and box office grosses, presumably), Scorsese has been very vocal about his desire for audiences to experience films on the big screen, free of distraction.

It seems unlikely that Netflix will ultimately refuse to release The Irishman in theaters — I mean, how do you defy the wishes of someone like Scorsese — but their hesitance to commit to the idea, even as the film is in production, remains somewhat bizarre.

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