Scorsese's 'The Irishman' could show in IMAX theaters, if Netflix loosens its grip

Key Points
  • Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" could come to IMAX theaters.
  • However, Netflix would have to make concessions about its limited theatrical release window.
  • IMAX previously partnered with Netflix to bring "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny" to its theaters in 2016.
Robert DeNiro in the Irishman.
Source: Netflix

Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" could come to IMAX theaters, if Netflix makes concessions about how long it's willing to let the film play in theaters before bringing it to its streaming service.

Like many theater exhibitors in the industry, IMAX has previously shied away from showing Netflix films in its theaters. The streaming service has been reluctant to adhere to traditional distribution policies set by theaters. However, if Netflix were to agree to expand its limited release windows, companies like IMAX would be more inclined to working with them, Rich Gelfond, CEO of IMAX, said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" Monday.

IMAX previously partnered with Netflix to bring "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny" to its theaters in 2016. This was the first time Netflix content had been shown at IMAX. However, this move drew ire from some theater owners, many of whom operated IMAX screens, as they did not want to release the film on the same day that it went live on Netflix's platform.

Ultimately, the film was shown in about a dozen IMAX locations, a fraction of the number it had initially planned.

Traditionally, Hollywood studios, and even Amazon, have adopted 90-day theatrical release window, which means a film will run in theaters for that time period before being available on video-on-demand or on a streaming service's site or app.

Netflix's Academy Award-winning film "Roma" rolled out to a limited number of theaters on Nov. 21 and was released to Netflix's streaming service on Dec. 14. The decision ruffled feathers for some theater operators, like AMC Theaters and Regal Cinemas, which declined to show "Roma" in theaters after its best picture nomination in January.

AMC said that because "Roma" hadn't been licensed to play in its theaters at the time of its release, it would not be included in its best picture showcase.

But, this contention hasn't stopped Netflix from seeking out other theater distributors for films. Netflix is set to distribute "The Highwaymen" as part of a limited release on March 15 in select theaters and then release the film on Netflix on March 29.

"The Highwaymen" is a film about a pair of police officers, played by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who come out of retirement to catch the infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. A limited release, if done in Los Angeles County, could make "The Highwaymen" eligible for awards season.

"Directors themselves really want theatrical releases," Gelfond said, explaining why some films Netflix films could come to theaters. "I wouldn't be surprised to see if [Netflix has] windows for that. Now, whether the windows are good enough where the theaters want to play them, that remains to be seen."

Exhibitors want a 12-week window to play the film, while companies like Netflix are looking for a shorter window of between four and six weeks, Gelfond said. If a compromise could be reached, then more Netflix films would likely come to theaters.

"The Irishman," a film by Scorsese about a mob hitman who recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa, features Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in lead roles. The film gained attention because of Scorsese's willingness to work with Netflix. Other directors and actors have been reluctant to do so in the past.

In fact, director Steven Spielberg has been quite vocal about the differences between theatrical and streaming releases.

"Once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie," he told ITV News last year. "You certainly, if it's a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don't believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination."

Spielberg, governor of the academy's directors branch, has said that he would like films to have a longer theatrical run in order to qualify for an Academy Award.

However, that doesn't mean Spielberg is championing a ban of Netflix films from Oscar contention. Media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg said that Spielberg had no plan to campaign against Netflix, saying at the South By Southwest conference in Texas that "he is not going to the academy in April with some sort of plan," according to a report by the Hollywood Reporter.

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