Netflix hit 'The Irishman' marks a turning point for how Oscar-caliber movies are distributed, and could speed the demise of movie theaters

Key Points
  • Netflix estimates more than 40 million people will watch "The Irishman" on Netflix in its first 28 days on the platform. The popularity of "The Irishman" on Netflix may put increasing pressure on media companies to push back on movie theaters to cut the traditional 90-day exclusive windowing of Oscar-caliber films.
  • The expense of seeing a movie and difficulty of getting to a theater with young kids has made windowing increasingly consumer unfriendly.
Still from Netflix's "Marriage Story."

We've hit a turning point: Oscar-worthy movies are coming to your living room nearly as quickly as they arrive in theaters.

A year after showcasing Best Picture-nominated "Roma," Netflix has made "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story" available to subscribers in November and December — around the same time they hit movie theaters — in preparation for awards season. "The Irishman" is the latest gangster movie from director Martin Scorsese, featuring veteran actors Joe Pesce, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. "Marriage Story" is a highbrow drama on the divorce process written and directed by Noah Baumbach.

Both movies won Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture (Drama). Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 13.

It turns out a lot of Americans want to watch new Oscar-caliber movies in their living rooms. Netflix announced this week that more than 26 million subscribers watched at least 70% of "The Irishman" in the first seven days it was shown on the streaming platform. Netflix expects that number to balloon to 40 million in the first 28 days. The actual number of viewers is probably even higher, as each subscriber represents an account, not a single person, and people often watch movies in a group.

For comparison, Scorsese's 1990 hit movie "Goodfellas" drew about 2 million people to movie theaters in its first week, based on available ticket sale data, said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at LightShed Partners.

That probably means we're going to get more of movies coming to streaming services sooner, which is great news for consumers. It's also terrible news for movie theaters.

"Theaters are in deep trouble," said Greenfield. "Consumers don't want rigid windowing."

Great for parents of young kids

For decades, the theatrical window has protected the movie theater industry by limiting the release of films. Most new releases aren't available as a streaming option in people's homes until about three months after they showcase in theaters.

That can be frustrating for people like me. For years, I made a point to try to see as many Academy Award-nominated movies as I could before watching The Oscars. I enjoyed rooting for my favorite Best Picture nominee and, inevitably, cursing the Academy when it lost to "The Shape of Water" or "Crash" or whatever.

But once I had kids, my movie-going days came to a "Crash"-ing halt. As most Oscar-worthy films are released in theaters between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they typically don't become available for home viewing until after The Oscars take place -- usually in February or early March. In recent years, I've gone from seeing nearly every Oscar-nominated movie before the award show airs to almost none. (Although I did see "Roma" last year -- thanks Netflix!).

This year, I've already seen "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story."

The transition away from movie theaters for young parents isn't a new phenomenon. But the gaudy viewership statistics for "The Irishman" suggests there's enormous consumer desire to pair streaming services with high quality films.

Film production companies have toyed with narrowing theatrical windows before, such as charging an outrageous $59.99 for on demand viewing of the little known "Tower Heist" back in 2011.

The difference today is media companies have a new incentive: To bolster the subscription numbers of fledgling streaming services. Disney+, AT&T-WarnerMedia's HBO Max, Comcast-NBCUniversal's Peacock, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video and other Netflix competitors are going to have to compete with each other for market share.

If 40 million people are watching "The Irishman," that's probably a sign the executives running streaming services will view top-level movies as must-have programming -- content that can truly move the needle for new subscribers. Oscar-caliber movies are exactly what Apple CEO Tim Cook, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey and others should crave to convince customers to sign up for their streaming services. Once consumers enter their credit card information, it's a lot easier to get them to stick around for a while.

This may be an optimistic view. While it's certainly beneficial not only for families with young kids but anyone trying to avoid spending "$100 a night," as Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos noted this week, movie theater companies have successfully lobbied to hold on to exclusive windows for decades. Perhaps they'll continue to win this fight, even as consumers like me suffer.

But we've already seen Netflix disrupt the traditional pay-TV bundle, causing millions of people to cancel cable TV each year. It's not a stretch to imagine Netflix disrupting the theater industry too.

WATCH: 26.4 million households have watched 'The Irishman': Netflix

26.4M households have watched 'The Irishman': Netflix