Why Netflix playing Broadway makes sense on both sides

Why Netflix playing Broadway makes sense on both sides

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci will be the draws at the Belasco Theatre in November. Unfortunately, they won’t be in the building.

That’s because the trio of actors will only appear on screen, in what is surely one of the most unique interim bookings of a Broadway house in recent years. For four weeks, the Belasco will become a movie theatre, showing the new Netflix-backed Martin Scorsese film The Irishman eight times a week, mimicking a live theatre performance schedule.

Early notices for the three-and-a-half-hour film have been rhapsodic. As of Tuesday morning, the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes had it at 100% “fresh”, or positive. Media analysts have been writing about the ‘problem’ The Irishman poses for Netflix – namely that it’s simply too good to go straight to the streaming service, which would deny the movie the opportunity to vie for Oscars come wintertime.

Netflix has long made statements that it would forgo theatrical exhibition for its original productions, but that determination began to slip last year with Alfonso Cuaron’s movie Roma and now, at least as far as The Irishman goes, those reservations have fallen completely away.

Three dozen showings over a month may not seem like a lot, but offering them in a Broadway theatre will generate significant media attention, as if the film needed more, and confer the prestige of Broadway upon it – no doubt handy when it comes to Oscar campaigning.

For the Shubert Organization, which owns the theatre, it’s a limited-time rental which generates revenue prior to the load-in for Girl from the North Country, which begins performances in February. For Netflix, it’s also a creative solution for a New York foothold at a time when many of the country’s major movie theatre chains won’t book Netflix films for brief runs with streaming so close behind. The Irishman is scheduled to be available on Netflix from November 27, a few days before the end of the Belasco engagement.

Girl from the North Country to transfer to Broadway

The Broadway run for The Irishman points up the loss of Manhattan’s purpose-built, single-screen movie theatres. The last one operating, the Paris Cinema, closed at the end of August and the city’s biggest single-screen theatre of recent years, the Ziegfeld, showed its last film in 2016.

Of course, no one will mistake the Belasco for a modern movie theatre. It has seating on three levels, no reclining seats, no cupholders, no expansive lobby space for the purchase of popcorn and giant fizzy drinks. A Shubert spokesman said that the concession menu will remain comparable to that of Broadway shows, with the major change being that they will be open throughout the screening.

With tickets sold at $15 for the run of The Irishman,  the Broadway showcase will be priced slightly below the typical New York movie ticket – even with service charges added – and far below live theatre prices.

While there hasn’t been a sustained film run in a Broadway theatre for a number of years, Manhattan’s theatres have long gone back and forth between live and filmed entertainment, with the vast Radio City Music Hall once offering both on a single ticket.

With tickets at $15, screenings of The Irishman will be priced slightly below the typical New York movie ticket and far below live theatre prices

Some Broadway houses were television studios in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of 42nd Street’s theatres, abandoned for theatrical purposes in the latter half of the 1900s, became grimy bastions of exploitation films – the grindhouses that inspired Quentin Tarantino, among other film-makers, before phoenix-like restorations that began in the 1990s.

The Irishman’s visit to Broadway surely doesn’t presage a return to converting live theatres into film houses, since those bygone decisions were a result of not being able to sell enough tickets to Broadway shows, rendering the theatres as surplus to requirements. In the mid-1980s, with Broadway in decline, the Nederlander Organization went so far as to sell the Mark Hellinger Theatre to the Times Square Church. That’s not the case now, with demand for Broadway houses and ticket sales at a sustained high.

But if showcasing The Irishman is a success, deep-pocketed media companies such as Netflix may look to duplicate the model on occasion, recalling so-called road show engagements for prestige films from 50 years ago. For theatre owners such bookings may prove quite advantageous, especially if short visits by musical entertainers such as Barry Manilow, Regina Spektor and Morrissey can’t be found.

However, if The Irishman model is deployed again, it may prove more appealing for less lengthy films. After all, even Eugene O’Neill, not noted for the brevity of his works, knew to include intermissions to give his audiences a break.

This week in US theatre

Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo receives its third major Manhattan revival, in a production that originated at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, with Marisa Tomei in the central role previously played by Maureen Stapleton (twice) and Mercedes Ruehl. Emun Elliott plays opposite her in the Roundabout Theatre run, directed by Trip Cullman, which opens on Tuesday.

David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Soft Power, first seen last year at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, makes its New York debut at the Public Theatre on Tuesday, once again directed by Leigh Silverman and with its LA ensemble virtually intact. The show is a fever-dream inversion of the orientalist tropes of The King and I, imagining a future Asian musical that looks back on a fictitious incident in the life of a US first lady.

The Lightning Thief, a musical adaptation of the young adult novel by Rick Riordan, reaches Broadway on Wednesday, having originated as a one-hour show that began at Theatreworks USA, a theatre that stages work for young audiences. The story of the children of Greek gods in the present day, it has a book by Joe Tracz, score by Rob Rokicki, and direction by Stephen Brackett. Both Tracz and Rokicki were on Broadway last season with another YA adaptation: Be More Chill.

Having begun life in 1982 at Off-Broadway’s now-defunct WPA Theatre, Little Shop of Horrors transferred to a five-year commercial run Off-Broadway in 1984, resulting in countless worldwide productions, an 11-month Broadway run that began in 2003, and a 1986 movie version, with a new film reportedly in the works. The story of a carnivorous alien plant, Little Shop returns to its Off-Broadway roots with a revival at the West Side Theatre featuring Tammy Blanchard, Jonathan Groff and Christian Borle, opening on Thursday under Michael Mayer’s direction. As it happens, a highly praised West Coast revival at the Pasadena Playhouse, with MJ Rodriguez and George Salazar as the endangered lovers, showcased to great effect on James Corden’s TV show, ends its run a week from Sunday.

Prolific playwright Adam Rapp makes his Broadway debut on Thursday with The Sound Inside, the story of a professor and her mysterious student. Mary-Louise Parker plays the professor under the direction of David Cromer. Like the aforementioned Rose Tattoo, the production comes to New York via the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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