“It’s never busy on a Sunday, but we’re rammed because of The Irishman.”

“Have you seen it?”

“It’s too busy, I don’t have three-and-a-half hours to spare!”

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Making small talk with the snack bar clerk at Lido Cinemas — housed in a flat-faced building in Hawthorn that previously held a dance hall, a theatre and, for a time in the 1930s, a mini-golf complex — I can see it is, indeed, rammed. They’re all here, the fellow travelers you see at any art house cinema; older, conspicuously middle-class couples, 40-something dudes in black T-shirts, and most pleasing to me, young film geeks — toothpick arms adrift in billowing short-sleeved button-ups, enough sugar in front of them to power northern Queensland’s economy for a year.

It’s nice to know there are still 17-year-olds who will shell out 20 bucks to watch this kind of movie.

As Clint Eastwood did in Unforgiven, The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s perfection of (and thus obituary to) a genre he defined: the stripping-back of the sweeping operatics of The Godfather to street-level reportage. All Scorsese’s gangster films had their eyes open to the ultimately hollow loneliness of this life, but none follow the logic quite this far.

The 209-minute meditation on violence and failed masculinity is sadder and quieter and slower than his previous in this area, the doo-wop-scored tracking shots that once followed Henry Hill “meeting the world” now end on knobbled, quaking hands in an aged care facility.

The Lido is one of only a handful of cinemas where you can see a movie that a few years ago would have been guaranteed a wide release. It’s a Netflix production, meaning there will be a month between when the film opens in cinemas and when it will be available to streaming audiences.

Cinemas generally get 90 days of exclusivity. Furious about the lost revenue — why would people shell out cash and leave their houses when they only had to wait a couple of weeks to see it on a service they’ve already paid for? — the vast majority of exhibitors have boycotted the film.

Yet without the Netflix deal, the film — subject to years of development hell and costing US$159 million thanks to the CGI de-aging of its stars — would never have been made. It’s only in the cinemas at all because Netflix is hungry for an Oscar, and you can’t get one of those if your movie didn’t play on the big screen.

This is a new normal. The Irishman joins Roma, Two Popes and Marriage Story in the list of high-profile films that will enjoy — or have enjoyed — a brief cinematic run prior to streaming release.

Of course, the controversy has contributed to the buzz around the movie, and is all to the benefit of cinemas who actually are showing it. Every showing of The Irishman in Lido’s (admittedly modest-sized) cinemas is sold out the day we go. Many other cinemas have reported the same response.

Nevertheless, it has led to a lot of ruminating on the fight between Netflix and cinemas, a fight that the old guard look destined to lose.

As it happens, Australia is one of the most cinema-going populations in the world. The numbers for cinema attendance (according to Screen Australia) have been steady (or flat-lining, depending on how you look at it) since streaming services took off. Certainly, the numbers haven’t plummeted like they did during the VHS boom of the 1980s. Cinemas similarly survived TV and DVDs.

But if we do dig into the numbers, some grim patterns emerge. In the first instance, variety. The portion of movie-goer money going to “blockbuster” films — big-budget pictures opening on 400 or more screens — is going up. In the top 10 highest-grossing movies for 2018, all but three are Marvel films, sequels or remakes.

The real crisis is that Scorsese — directing Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and, for the first time, Al Pacino in the genre they all mastered — couldn’t get his movie made any other way. In that context, what hope does any young filmmaker with any faintly risky ideas really have?

And Netflix being the primary screen producer would certainly be dreadful news for Australian content. It’s already in trouble, and will be fucked if the shift to Netflix continues; just 1.6% of the titles on Australian Netflix were actually made here.

Cinema still offers something that can’t be replicated elsewhere; the size and detail of the image, the power of the soundtrack, the feeling of being truly enveloped. Have you tried watching Silence, Scorsese’s last film, on Netflix, your phone within reach and your housemate coming home halfway through? It just doesn’t work.

The Irishman is cinema as an experience, rather than cinema as an event, and it accrues emotional resonance from other movies of its kind — rather than relying on them to make any sense at all.

If films like this can be coaxed away from the cinemas, something about the process — some fundamental idea of what cinema is — will be lost and may never return.

Has the rise of Netflix and other streaming services changed your viewing habits? Send your thoughts to [email protected] Please include your full name for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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