Broadway’s famed Belasco Theatre (pictured) has been the site of memorable stage plays since its opening in 1907. Last month it was rented by Netflix for a one-month run of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which was shown with newly installed, custom 4K projection. This was the first motion-picture feature exhibited in the Belasco in the theater’s entire 112-year history. It seems likely that Netflix spent considerable cash to retrofit the venerable, recently restored house not solely for bragging rights, but also as a marker of its ongoing war with theatrical-distribution entities such as NATO (the National Association of Theatre Owners). It’s no secret that Netflix has had difficulty finding conventional venues that will screen its motion pictures, especially in suburban locations; NATO theaters refuse to book them under the streamer’s current terms. In Los Angeles, Laemmle art houses are screening The Irishman. During the heyday of the French New Wave, Francophile Max Laemmle’s flagship theater, the Los Feliz on Vermont Avenue, was Mecca to me and my USC film-school peers. The Los Feliz represented big-screen cinema. Landmark Theatres, another indie chain, is also showing The Irishman. Is there some irony that in their attempt to secure profitable bookings, these art houses are also enabling a company that is trying to redefine the terms of big-screen exhibition?
Even with this grab bag of venues, the theatrical run of The Irishman has been limited. And now, after only a several-week theatrical window, Scorsese’s “masterwork” is being streamed to Netflix subscribers (attracting 22 million viewers in the first week), even as it continues in some commercial theaters; the streaming date of Nov. 27 preceded the balloting for Academy Award nominations, a decision that’s not sitting so well with some tradition-minded Academy member/voters. Clearly, the limited theatrical exhibition of the film is frustrating enough for Mr. Scorsese that he has taken to the media to plead with viewers to see it on the big screen.
One can only have sympathy for the filmmakers who have made what some critics have called a “devil’s deal” with Netflix, gaining near total creative freedom, with budget largesse as well, but with the understanding that their movie won’t be seen in many theaters during its theatrical run, especially during Oscar season, but will be viewed on laptops, mobile phones and even this:
There is little sign of a truce in the screening/streaming wars. Amazon tries to honor a reasonable theatrical window, while Netflix seems intent on playing hardball — despite its recent acquisition of a renowned movie house, Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, home of the American Cinematheque. It is not unreasonable to assume there is vibrant internal discussion at Netflix regarding how to juggle the seeming conflicting interests of screening/streaming. On the one hand, the company’s mandate is to satisfy current subscribers and maintain that base while developing new ones. On the other, there is a palpable desire to have the Best Picture Oscar assume the place of honor in the very visible vitrine in the lobby of the company’s Hollywood headquarters. (The Oscar in this photo is for the documentary short The White Helmets.)
Last year, as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, I asked producer Albert Berger to chair an ad hoc committee titled The Future of Film. Its mandate was broad-based and inclusive: to conduct a series of discussions with filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors to find a tentative roadmap of where the fast-changing digital production and exhibition highway might be headed. Several dozen meetings took place in the Academy’s boardroom. Film archivists, preservationists and historians were included in the mix. Even as this was unfolding, it became clear that the major studios’ commitment to big-screen exhibition was evolving. Several are hedging their bets in a volatile marketplace; some (including Disney/Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros.) are rolling out their own subscription-based streaming services, and there are new players (i.e., Apple) entering the fray. Meanwhile, Netflix seems to be responding to requests from the creative community to support more of its “content” with a longer theatrical window beyond the minimum “day and date” specified in the Academy's Rule Two, created some years ago. Here is part of that rule:
… to be eligible for awards consideration, a film must have a minimum seven-day theatrical run in a Los Angeles County commercial theater, with at least three screenings per day for paid admission. Motion pictures released in nontheatrical media on or after the first day of their Los Angeles County theatrical qualifying run remain eligible.
Two points are relevant here: The release must be in an established commercial theater in Los Angeles County, not an ad hoc one (such as a non-cinema “four wall” venue); and the film may be released via a nontheatrical medium, such as streaming, on the same date as the theatrical release.
Another sign of the times can be seen on the large advertising billboards all over Hollywood, especially along the Sunset Strip, Beverly Boulevard, Vine Street and other major traffic arteries. These billboards used to be the province of recently released theatrical feature films, leavened only by a few that supported highly visible TV series during Emmy-nomination season.
No longer! Even a casual drive through Hollywood today reveals a bonanza of “for your consideration” ads for Netflix and Amazon movies currently streaming, ads for new streaming series, and ads for a new “season” of a current streaming series. It is a brave, new world of advertising out there: cosmetics lines created by pop stars and nearby marijuana dispensaries vie for your attention between traffic lights. No one can purport to be an oracle of where any of this is headed.
While the continuing debate about exhibition seems to capture most of the trade media’s attention, it is at ground zero of actual filmmaking that the battle for moviegoers’ hearts and minds is being fought. Taking a two-year hiatus from my career as a working cinematographer (while serving as AMPAS president) gave me a chance to reflect on the nature of the viewing experience on large and small screens. Watching alone with a personal device that we control yields one kind of experience, whereas watching with an audience in a dark theater yields another. With the latter, we surrender ourselves to the flow of time and space envisioned by the filmmaker.
I want to cite a few personal experiences to illustrate my own dilemma. As recently as last week, I sat in the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater with fellow Academy filmmakers, watching the last scheduled film in this year’s roster of 90-plus movies submitted for the International Feature Film Award (previously known as the Foreign-Language Feature Award). This final movie was an entry from the Czech Republic titled The Painted Bird, a dark, deeply disturbing vision of man’s casual but insistent inhumanity to his fellow man, seen through the eyes of an orphan boy cast adrift in the war-torn landscape of World War II. Almost three hours long and photographed in stark black-and-white on 35mm Kodak Double-X film, the movie is adapted from the eponymous Jerzy Kosinski novel, and it is painful to experience. There were several walkouts early on in the Dunn screening during scenes of torture, dismemberment and rape, and during a singularly shocking scene of Jews being machine-gunned and burned by flamethrowers after they jumped from a train carrying them to the death camps. Grim stuff.
But here’s the point. Even though The Painted Bird is an important and deeply moving experience, I wonder if I would have had the fortitude to watch it in real time via any streaming device that I could pause or stop. Crucial to understanding this demanding film is the willingness to surrender yourself to its dark portrait of unrelenting evil, a nightmare from which you can’t wake. Thinking about this more generally, I believe this sense of immersive surrender is crucial in fully experiencing any great film. Can you imagine watching Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game or The Grapes of Wrath in fits and starts?
Since this year’s Oscars ceremony, I have been privileged to attend eight film festivals, most of them as a juror dedicated to close scrutiny of up to four films daily. Carol and I recently returned from the 50th International Film Festival of India-Goa, where I served as a jury chairman. Sequestered in a private screening room, we five jurors watched 22 feature films in six days. Even though we constituted a small audience — smaller even than some families streaming a movie at home — the sensation in that dark theater was one of the purest “cinema” experiences I have ever had. The room was almost like a sensory-deprivation space, yet I was, even there, acutely aware of my fellow jurors, the reality of our shared experience and the transcendence we felt.
Conversely, on the flight home, I sat in a business-class seat with its own video screen. I have always declined to watch any movie on an in-flight device, but this time, facing a 16-hour flight from Doha to L.A., I relented, surrendering to what I expected to be a mind-numbing foray into the small screen. But even with the airline-supplied headphones, I was aware of every movement around me, and the constant distraction made it almost impossible to engage with the film. I realize this limitation might also be a generational thing. On a flight over to Europe a few weeks earlier, I was fascinated by a boy across the aisle, no older than 8 or 9, who was watching movies on his iPhone even though a much bigger screen was right in front of him. My blog editor, Rachael Bosley, pointed out to me that in too many commercial movie theaters today, disruptive behavior by members of the audience is so ubiquitous that streaming a movie at home might be the only way to see it undistracted. Ironies abound.
The more I try to wend my way through the thicket of screening/streaming pros and cons, the more I fall back into a totally irrelevant but persistent nostalgia for the pre-video era. Even with the onslaught of television in the early 1950s, the only way to see a recent feature film was at a big-screen movie house. By the time I entered film school, in 1965, some of the great movie palaces (the cinephile’s secular temples) were already being shuttered, even as exhibitors were running ads against the demon they called “Pay TV.”
I still have memories of the sad quality of 35mm film prints at second-run theaters like the Westlake on Alvarado, where the running time of a feature could be shortened by five minutes because of all the spliced jump cuts and torn perfs. Another challenge was the snoring boozers who found the 75-cent admission a gateway to undisturbed sleep until the theater’s midnight closing. Even in that era, there could be challenges to immersive moviegoing.
Inside the Academy, there is plenty of debate about screening vs. streaming, and it centers around this: If the Academy relaxes qualification rules to include movies made primarily for and released by a streaming platform that does not support any initial theatrical release (something which has been proposed), what becomes of the identity of the Academy itself? The oft-asked question in Future of Film discussions — What is a feature film? — is front and center today. If qualification rules change, is it possible that the sought-after, very limited-edition Oscar will become as common as the Emmy?
The Academy 2019 International Feature Film Shortlist