Martin Scorsese is right. Tiny screens do murder good films

David Sexton

Martin Scorsese ran into big trouble a few weeks ago when he said Marvel films were more like theme parks than cinema. Now he has caused another upset by imploring audiences not to watch his films on their smartphones.

“If you ever want to see one of my pictures, or most films, please, please don’t look at it on a phone, please,” he told a sympathetic interviewer. “An iPad, a big iPad, maybe,” he conceded.

His gangster epic, The Irishman , is proving an extreme test case for the way we watch films now. It’s three-and-a-half hours long, profoundly about ageing, mortality and the experience of time, and Scorsese wants people to see it on a big screen in a single sitting.

But the only way he could get this $160 million movie financed was through Netflix, rather than a traditional studio. So, after a mere three-week run in theatres, it was released on the streaming service last week, and it’s now available to be watched by subscribers through any device, in whatever way they like — in bite-sized pieces, skimming through, checking out the ending first, turning it into a serial if they like, half-distracted half the time

Scorsese hopes people will make a night of it at home and not get up or answer the phone. That’s simply not happening. While nearly all the film’s initial reviewers (myself included) were enraptured by it on a big screen, those watching it in other ways last weekend have reported being much less impressed, many finding it self-indulgent, a slog, giving up halfway even.

At least the film got made. Scorsese diplomatically admits his deal with Netflix was “a trade-off”. So was Netflix’s support for Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winner Roma. That opened with a five-minute sequence (in black and white) of tiles in a hallway being repeatedly washed down with water that I remember finding absolutely hypnotic when I saw it on a big screen at its premiere at Venice Film Festival. It is hard to imagine any viewer bothering to watch that sequence, or being anything other than exasperated by it, if watching the film on a phone.

The demands for immediate entertainment are so different. “Films will be made for phones,” Scorsese predicts, although not by him. They will indeed. Next April, former Disney mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg is launching a subscription platform, Quibi (short for “quick bites”), delivering premium content from well-known film-makers, made specifically for pocket-size screens, divvied up into seven to 10-minute chunks — and unlike other streaming services it will be available only on mobile phones.

Cinema will no doubt survive this development, as it has survived other technological advances. But let’s not kid ourselves that phones offer any equivalent experience. “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film — you’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated,” said David Lynch. If it’s any good, that is.

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