A long line of moviegoers stretched down West 44th Street on one of New York’s first bitterly cold days. Shuffling past oversize posters of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and past ornate gold statues perched above the Belasco Theater’s box office, the ticket-holders headed in for a Saturday matinee.
Once they reached the theater’s lower lobby, fitted with four 1960s telephone booths and old newspaper stands, it really hit them: This was not your typical trip to the movie theater.
And Netflix doesn’t want it to be. The streaming service is filling three levels of compact Broadway seats with some of the first audiences to see “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster drama, this month at the Belasco. The site will release the film for streaming on Nov. 27, toward the end of its brief theatrical run on only eight screens in New York and Los Angeles.
Last month, negotiations between Netflix and major movie theater chains fell through when the two sides couldn’t agree on a time period for theaters to have exclusive screening access. (Bigger chains typically want 72 days of exclusivity, sometimes up to 90 days; “The Irishman” will be at the Belasco for 26 days before going online.)
The Belasco run was planned for Netflix’s rollout independently of those negotiations. If the theater’s ornate architecture falls in line with Netflix’s goal of creating an elaborate filmgoing experience, that’s mostly serendipitous. The theater’s window of availability — after “Network” closed in June and before “Girl From the North Country,” the Bob Dylan musical, begins performances in February — happened to coincide with the dates Netflix wanted.
Scott Stuber, the company’s head of films, called it “a perfect marriage” — one that could be difficult to orchestrate again, given the logjam of Broadway-bound shows with not enough theaters to house them.
“It feels like it deserves to have a theatrical release,” said Alex Svensson, who came to Saturday’s matinee with his parents. “I think in an age of digital distribution and streaming, having it at not just a theater but a theater like this is a really unique screening experience.”
He added, “I think it’s sort of fitting for a film that feels like it might be kind of a swan song for all these key players.”
To heighten the sense of theatricality, Netflix installed those phone booths, which showed trailers of the film. Their exteriors were covered with stickers supporting Jimmy Hoffa’s reign at the top of the Teamsters union (a key element of the film). Once inside, patrons picked up the ringing phones to see footage from the film on a small screen.
In between the phone booths, metal boxes — tagged with more Hoffa stickers and others advertising John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign — held newspapers boasting a six-column headline: “Where is Hoffa?”
Copies of the newspaper (complete with an arts section) and “The Irishman” posters were available to take home, to the delight of the audience — which included a man in a “Scarface” T-shirt and another determined to maintain his streak of seeing every Scorsese film in theaters. Like a kid grabbing complimentary mints on his way out of a diner, one man tucked a thick stack of posters under his arm. He looked over at a companion and grinned: “We’re all set.”
This is the first film to be screened at the Belasco in its history. Netflix brought in a digital media firm to outfit the space with surround-sound systems in the theater’s three levels, a projection booth (with two projectors) behind the orchestra seating and an 18-by-32-foot screen. The whole process took 20 hours over two days.
It is more modernization than the theater has seen in a while. When it opened more than a century ago, the theater producer David Belasco envisioned a Broadway house akin to a living room — something intimate, residential. In reality, it’s closer to a palace (and perhaps a haunted one, if rumors are to be believed).
Scattered across the dark wood ceiling are colorful pools of stained glass, a tempting case for staring up rather than straight ahead at the stage. There are intricate murals — 18 of them, in seemingly every direction — by Everett Shinn. Then there are the Tiffany light fixtures. Yes, that Tiffany.
Tickets for “The Irishman” are $15, close to the typical movie ticket price in Manhattan. But touches of Broadway are evident in other details: The film is running eight shows a week, skipping Mondays as a theatrical production would. The Belasco’s ushers are around to guide patrons to their seats, and the theater’s full bar with concessions is open downstairs. (No intermission to break up the film’s three and a half hours, though, so get comfortable.)
“We all get excited about that night at the theater,” Stuber said. “There’s kind of an endless possibility of the kinetic energy of live music or live theater.”
The key, Stuber said, is giving consumers the option to make their own decision between watching at home or having a night out in a dark theater, experiencing art with others.
“Whether I want to go to a Yankee game or watch it at home, I get that choice,” he said. “And each of them are great. There’s nothing disparate. But each of them has a different thing to it. So for us, we want to continue to get to a place where the consumer has that option.”
That option, though, only extends to those in New York or Los Angeles.
Netflix’s dip into theaters, in part to meet the Oscars’ eligibility requirements, is relatively new. Eligible films have to screen in a Los Angeles theater for at least a week.
For some, it’s less about the size of the screen and more about seeing it as early as possible. Eric Corcoran, another Saturday matinee ticket-holder, knew he couldn’t wait for the film to hit Netflix to watch Scorsese and the cast — his childhood heroes — in action.
Seeing it in a Broadway theater, he said, was just an added bonus. “It’s like going to a movie on steroids.”