Martin Scorsese thinks movie theaters shouldn’t just be for Marvel blockbusters

Al, Robert, hold him back!
Al, Robert, hold him back!
Image: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
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Martin Scorsese is sad.

The Goodfellas director, whose latest film The Irishman is in select theaters now before hitting Netflix on Nov. 27, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday (Nov. 4) bemoaning the current state of Hollywood film production and distribution. It was an attempt to clarify comments he made last month, when he suggested Marvel superhero movies are not cinema, comparing them instead to theme parks.

Scorsese’s jab ignited a firestorm of debate over the artistic value of blockbuster movies, and whether or not they prevent other kinds of films (“pictures,” as the filmmaker quaintly calls them) from being made and shown in theaters. He doubled down in the New York Times column, widening the scope of his argument to lament the death of the communal viewing experience of movies outside the lucrative franchises:

So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.

Indeed, streaming is rapidly becoming the new home for many mid- to low-budget, non-franchise films that in the past wouldn’t have had trouble securing theatrical distribution—like the majority of films in Scorsese’s oeuvre. The director tried selling The Irishman to Hollywood studios like Paramount Pictures, but they all passed, deciding the three-hour mob drama, which required expensive de-aging technology on stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, was too much of a risk.

Scorsese has been adamant that Netflix was the only distributor willing to take a chance on The Irishman. “It, and it alone, allowed us to make ‘The Irishman’ the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful,” he wrote in the Times.

Negotiations between Netflix and the major US theater chains over The Irishman ended in a stalemate last month: The chains wanted at least a 60-day theatrical window before the film streams online, while Netflix refused to go higher than 45, the New York Times reported. Ultimately, the two sides went their separate ways. The Irishman will be shown only in select independent theaters, in the 10 biggest US markets, for 26 days before it streams on Netflix. You won’t be able to see it at your local AMC or Cineplex theater.

Netflix doesn’t have to worry about selling movie tickets. It let Scorsese make The Irishman for other reasons: to help bring in more subscribers, and, of course, to win Oscars. The latter could help with the former, along with the added benefit of convincing more filmmakers of Scorsese’s caliber to work with the streaming service.

Take a look at your local theater listings at any time of the year, and you’ll see a lineup of franchise movies. This week, Terminator: Dark Fate, Joker, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Zombieland: Double Tap are all in wide release. Scorsese isn’t saying these movies are all bad (though he might argue they aren’t really movies at all), but rather, they crowd out riskier films from the marketplace.

“What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger,” Scorsese added. “Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”

Citing the “electrifying” chemistry between an Alfred Hitchcock film and its audience, Scorsese views the communal aspect of cinema to be absolutely essential. And that aspect, the director argues, is now reserved only for cynical franchise movies. “For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art,” he wrote. “And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.”