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How Rights and Royalty Issues and Industry Conflicts Nearly Ended The Irishman's Oscar Destiny

by: Denise Dorman | February 4, 2020

We may never know the real story of how Netflix ended up with the rights to The Irishman, and frankly, the version I know is so convoluted, I’d bore you by retelling it here in too much detail. My employer Vistex is a leader in rights, royalty and licensing software for the past 30+ years for the major film studios, production companies, and music labels, ensuring everyone above and below the line gets their fair share of revenue. Suffice it to say, we take a keen interest in observing how these rights and royalty situations unfold.

So here’s the short version: a few years ago, there was a distribution dispute about The Irishman. STX Entertainment thought their $50 million payment ensured they had worldwide rights. Shortly thereafter at Cannes, Netflix was scooping up worldwide SVOD rights with the understanding The Irishman was fully unencumbered. After some high-level, back-and-forth negotiations where even Scorsese and De Niro got personally involved, STX relinquished their deal and it ended up in the hands of Netflix for distribution and public consumption.

Naturally, the filmmakers were striving for an Oscar. But how was an SVOD company going to accommodate the rules of the Oscars mandate, that the movie be shown in actual movie theaters and not just streamed on Netflix? Netflix agreed to release it in a limited number of theaters. In all honesty, most fans saw the three-and-a-half-hour movie epic from the comfort of their La-Z-Boys.

While on the quest to garner Oscar nominations, opposition struck again. The Academy prefers traditional movie releases, where the exhibitors have a 72-day exclusivity period before allowing streaming. When Netflix tried negotiating with major theater chains over The Irishman, only a limited number of theaters would allow the 26-day run Netflix preferred before the film streamed on Netflix for its subscribers. Two major chains are rumored to have negotiated down to a 60-day run, but Netflix still wasn’t having it. Netflix mandated that 45 days was their max theater run, so that deal never came to fruition.

Influencers like The Directors Guild, for one, eschew day-and-date releases (when a film becomes available on theaters, DVD and Video-on-Demand, all on the same day). Producers branch member and six-time Oscar winner Arthur Cohn opined, To go on television after two weeks is absolutely not right. It’s unbelievable. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, whose constituencies are large chains like AMC, representing 65000+ screens in 97 countries, is gobsmacked at the notion that Netflix would rather make their money on new subscribers than on royalties from 72-day movie runs in theaters.

But in the end, Netflix earned 24 nominations—10 of which were for The Irishman—more than any other Hollywood studio. Many of the governors are happily in business dealings with Netflix, so the nose is under the camel’s tent, so to speak. While no streaming company has yet to win Best Picture, if I were a betting man, this could be the year. As you watch the Oscars on Sunday, February 9th on ABC, will your money be on Netflix?