Edward Norton: The ’90s were an amazing time for a lot of us first coming up in films—when the success of Miramax caused all of the studios to set up their own little boutique, arthouse labels. Suddenly, there were new distributor doors to knock on: People wanted to fill product slates for these things, and there was a sense that there were all kinds of opportunities to get our films made.
Today’s new studio era, dominated by Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, has created a rich time for film distribution. On one hand, audiences can say, “There’s too much stuff, I can’t watch it all.” And yet, although it’s true, for a creative, the number of platforms and ways in which you can tell a story now are rather amazing.
It’s also true that the diversity of voices able to find outlets is increasing greatly. Not a single traditional studio would have invested in Roma the way Netflix did. You wanted affirmation that these guys are for real? Nobody else would have put the amount of theatrical backing and long-term marketing that they put into a Spanish-language film shot in black-and-white before it even hit their platform. How can anybody complain about that?
We made Motherless Brooklyn independently, but with an arrangement for Warner Bros. to distribute it before we had made it, so our film got the best of both worlds. Making the film on our terms meant we had less money, but also that we didn’t have to make it while wondering what its fate was going to be. We knew we had the support of a company with a great distribution network, so we had a happy experience.
The only catch: There’s more risk. When Netflix gives Martin Scorsese $200 million to make a gangster film about Jimmy Hoffa, there’s virtually no risk. Nobody’s sweating the box-office returns because no one will never know about it. Netflix has their own method of evaluating that. We made our film on a tenth of the budget of The Irishman, but it was under the pressure of, “Can the studio find an audience for it so that the economics make sense?” I’m hopeful that moviemakers can go the traditional theatrical route and still find a good audience, but you never know for sure.
While we were finalizing our digital print of the film, we spot-checked it in some high-end theaters—venues with premium seating and showcasing… And we found that more than a third of the theaters were operating with their bulbs running at less than half the brightness that they’re supposed to have! The spec for presentation is 14 on brightness, 14 foot-lamberts, but we went into a theater that was running Captain Marvel and the bulb was at 6.2—which means it’s operating at less than 50 percent of the brightness. It made our film literally unwatchable.
We called these guys out and asked what’s going on, and eventually a tech who works for a major theater chain admitted to us that more than half of the screens in their complex of cinemas were operating under 10, which is under their contractual spec. What that means is, despite all this talk of how streaming services are killing the movie business, it’s the exhibitors who are killing the movie business. People are right: The film does look better at home, because these theaters are cheaping out on changing $1,000 bulbs that have about a four-month life! They’re running what they have two, three, five times beyond their lifespan and showing movies so dim that if a cinematographer walked in and saw it, they’d blow their brains out.
I called the head of Warner and said, “You guys need to put the screws to these guys. They’re taking half the ticket receipt and they’re the ones ruining the experience. We’re spending millions to put out these movies at a certain set of specifications and they’re nickel-and-diming us on changing the bulb.” Netflix takes so much care in the fidelity of the transfer and it’s absolutely perfect. The theater chains are sabotaging their own side of the business. They talk about “collapsing theatrical windows” but it’s all baloney. They’re the ones doing the most damage by not showing movies the way they’re supposed to be shown. MM
—As told to Katherine Brodsky
Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn opened in theaters November 1, 2019, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Fall Guide to Making Movies.