Martin Scorsese’s high-profile mob pic may have been a boon to movie exhibitors if it had been given a traditional wide theatrical release.
In late 2013, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street debuted to $34.2 million at the U.S. box office over the five-day Christmas Day holiday on its way to grossing $392 million globally and landing numerous top Oscar nominations.
Six years later, Scorsese’s The Irishman is bypassing a traditional theatrical release and instead will debut on Netflix on Nov. 27, the start of the lucrative Thanksgiving frame. With its pedigree, will the critically acclaimed mob pic keep consumers otherwise occupied and hurt the overall box office?
It’s a complicated question underscored by the fact that — in addition to Netflix’s continued rise — several new high-profile streamers, including Disney+ and Apple TV+, have both launched this month armed with enough original programming aimed at attracting a large subscriber base.
“You have to look at it holistically. I don’t think The Irishman will specifically cause people to stay home and away from movie theaters, but I do think it’s symbolic of a trend toward great content being available on streaming,” says Wall Street analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed Partners.
Others disagree. “It’s not an all or nothing proposition,” says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore, noting that families and friends spending Thanksgiving together “need to leave the house” at some point.
“Going to the movies remains a vital part of our entertainment diet,” Dergarabedian notes. “And while a major movie release on a streaming platform will certainly draw loads of viewers, this doesn’t spell doom for movie theaters or, for that matter, any other activity outside the home.”
The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the lobbying organization for exhibitors, points to an Ernst & Young study finding that those who stream frequently are also the most frequent moviegoers. Across all demos, the January 2019 survey showed that those who visited a theater once or twice in the preceding 12 months watched an average of seven hours of streaming per week, compared with 11 hours of streaming for those who visited a theater nine or more times.
Netflix is notoriously reticent when it comes to releasing viewership data. Exceptions include El Camino, the streamer’s movie sequel to the TV hit Breaking Bad, which was viewed 25.7 million times in its first week, Oct. 11-18, the company claimed.
And, last year, the Sandra Bullock-starrer Bird Box turned into a water-cooler sensation after debuting on Netflix on Dec. 21. The streamer later reported that 45 million accounts watched the sci-fi thriller over the holidays. Some used that number to suggest that Bird Box could have grossed several hundred million dollars at the global box office.
A Barclays study disputes that assumption, putting the film’s potential box office closer to $98 million. The report stated that the vast majority of the audience “was composed of people who watched it because it was on Netflix and would not have gone to a theater.” Nor did Bird Box seem to ding the 2018 Christmas box office, which turned in strong returns, even without a Star Wars entry.
Netflix also declines to provide box office grosses for those films that get a select run in indie cinemas during awards season, such as The Irishman. Scorsese’s film, similar to the Oscar-nominated Roma last year or this year’s Marriage Story, received an exclusive run in dozens of indie cinemas prior to its debut on the service and by this weekend will be playing in more than 200 locations across the U.S.
The streamer has famously refused to adhere to the theatrical window, focusing instead on making its original programming available to its subscribers as soon as possible. In turn, most cinema chains refuse to carry Netflix titles. Scorsese and Netflix execs tried to reach a compromise with exhibitors, but those talks ultimately broke down.
“The current and growing glut of streaming titles and streaming companies needs to differentiate content for consumers and compete for filmmakers. Theatrical releases with real windows meet both needs,” says Patrick Corcoran, vp NATO.
“Streaming is disrupting the home entertainment market, not theaters,” Corcoran adds. “Transactional home video has declined domestically from $24.7 billion per year in 2004 to $10.3 billion in 2018 — a 58 percent loss of annual revenue.”
Earlier this month, NATO chairman John Fithian said Irishman would have been a boon to theaters had it been given a traditional wide release, judging by the success of Scorsese films such as Wolf of Wall Street.