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The face-off between Netflix and filmmakers over screening movies in theaters heats up

Robert De Niro and Netflix creative chief Ted Sarandos have wildly divergent opinions about the value of seeing a movie in a theater.

The face-off between Netflix and filmmakers over screening movies in theaters heats up
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs [Photo: Netflix]

Netflix’s future strategy on releasing films in theaters doesn’t seem to be any more resolved after conflicting comments from actor Robert De Niro and Netflix’s chief creative officer Ted Sarandos in the last day.

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On Sunday, De Niro, star of the upcoming Netflix film The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, told reporters at the Marrakech Film Festival that The Irishman will receive a theatrical release prior to its Netflix run. “In the beginning, they will show it on the big screen–we’re talking about big venues where it would play, where it should play–and what happens after that, I’m not sure.”

“We’ve talked about it with Netflix,” the actor continued. “They are going to do a presentation of our film the way it should be, in a theater.”

Fast forward to Monday: Sarandos used an appearance at UBS’s 2018 Global Media and Communications Conference in New York, to reiterate his belief that movies should be seen on Netflix.

He said that the existing 90-day window that theaters insist on before films move on to streaming platforms is “not consumer friendly.” More pointedly, he added, “I don’t think emotionally it’s a different experience” to watch a movie in a theater versus on Netflix. Though he added, “We’re not trying to hurt theaters in any way.”

Recall that just over a month ago, in late October, Netflix abruptly announced that it would be releasing three Oscar hopeful films this season for brief, exclusive runs in theaters before their debuts on Netflix. The chosen films and filmmakers were Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma; the Coen Brothers’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box.

The move was a milestone for the streaming company, which has been steadfast–and vocal–about its insistence that its films be released only on Netflix, or, in cases of awards contenders, on the same day and date on Netflix and in theaters. 

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Although Netflix had not given any additional clues as to how it would proceed with future releases, the comments in the last two days suggest that the battle between die-hard cineasts and executives at the Silicon Valley-based company will continue.

Scorsese has reportedly pressed Netflix for a theatrical release, and with super agent Ari Emanuel behind him, one can assume that that pressure has mounted since news of the Cuarón screenings. 

In order to line up talent like Cuarón and Scorsese–and Steven Spielberg, who has said he will never make a movie for a streaming-first platform–Netflix is going to have to keep bending on its stance on theatrical releases. Its concessions with Roma, Buster Scruggs, and Bird Box suggest that it’s willing to be flexible. The question now is, just how much more flexible is it willing to be? Especially considering that a top executive like Sarandos is maintaining that there is no emotional difference in the experience of seeing a film in a theater versus in your living room, comments that would make most directors, particularly prestigious ones, shudder. 

How the Oscar race plays out will surely affect this debate. Should Roma win Best Picture–it’s considered one of the front-runners–Netflix will be able to make the case that even a three-week run in theaters allows a film its full awards glory. If it doesn’t, Cuarón and his handlers will surely complain that a better distribution strategy would have helped the film win.

Save us a seat on the aisle, because this fight is definitely one to watch.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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