Netflix's 'The Irishman,' directed by Martin Scorsese, is about much more than Jimmy Hoffa

When names like Scorsese and Pacino are going to Netflix, who is going to be the brave industry soul that blocks their awards-show entrance?
Ray Romano, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are part of the star-studded cast of "The Irishman."
Ray Romano, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are part of the star-studded cast of "The Irishman."Niko Tavernise / Netflix
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By Ani Bundel

September traditionally marks the beginning of a parade of films looking to garner award nominations. Though there have been a few early contenders so far, like “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” and “Rocketman,” most of the films vying for Oscars won’t be in theaters for months. Which is why seeing the trailer for “The Irishman” arrive on the final day of July was such a shock. One of the first trailers for an obvious awards-bait film, the movie is a biopic (of sorts) about the man suspected of killing Jimmy Hoffa, the labor union leader who was famous for running a massive organized crime syndicate out of Detroit. Twelve-time Oscar nominee Martin Scorsese is directing a murderer’s row of stars, including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

And it’s coming to Netflix.

At this point, it should not be so much of a shock that a film of this apparent caliber is a Netflix production. The streaming service has gone hog-wild on the original content front, desperately stuffing its coffers with shows it either produces itself or puts enough money behind to be able to call a “Netflix Original Production.” In 2018, the service spent around $12 billion (no, that’s not a typo) on a variety of TV series and movies. In 2019, that number is expected to reach $15 billion.

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And yet, the film industry has so far fought the idea of Netflix as a destination for high-profile movies — mostly successfully. The list of A-list directors and actors that have poo-pooed the idea of watching a movie on one’s phone or iPad is extensive. The recent changes made by film festivals like Cannes have been pointedly done to prevent Netflix from competing or even showing films at what are often considered the gatekeepers for serious award contenders. Those who do host Netflix films, like the Venice Film Festival, face fierce opposition.

Moreover, unions like the Directors Guild of America have changed their rules to force Netflix to release their films in theaters weeks before streaming them if they want the films to be deemed eligible for nominations. “The Irishman” is coming to “select theaters” as the press release terms it. But that’s just a polite way of admitting it will open only in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. Those in smaller urban areas, like Detroit, where the film is set, will most likely only ever see it on Netflix.

In light of this, having Scorsese, one of the biggest directors in movie history, bring a film like this to the streaming service is remarkable. The question is, why?

Romcoms like “The Perfect Date” and “Always Be My Maybe” are landing 30 million to 40 million views, according to the service, numbers that simply don’t happen for the genre in the movie houses. Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us” became one of the most watched documentaries in Netflix’s history. Even dreck like “Murder Mystery” and “Triple Frontier” — films that would most likely stink up the box office — come out on top when they are easy “hit play” offerings for users bored at home.

And then there’s the changing landscape of Hollywood, and the now cartoonish monopoly held by Disney in the wake of its merger with 20th Century Fox. It was only this week that Disney broke its own record for annual box office earnings. The previous record, which it set in 2016, was $7.61 billion. The new record is $7.67 billion — which it hit in July. Add in everything the House of Mouse still has coming, from September’s “Ad Astra” to October’s “Maleficent 2,” not to mention guaranteed box office smashes like November’s “Frozen” sequel and December’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and Disney’s sheer domination is not only overwhelming, but terrifying.

This has resulted in an ugly situation, one that events like Cannes attempt to overlook. But movie makers in America cannot miss the writing on the wall, especially now that Disney has absorbed Fox’s upcoming release slate. Netflix no longer feels like a place for B-list movies; old veterans like Scorsese and De Niro are fleeing there, too.

After a while, the glamour of insisting one’s films must be seen in 70mm or 35mm to be fully appreciated — as Christopher Nolan did with “Dunkirk, or Quentin Tarantino is doing with “Once Upon Time … In Hollywood” — or IMAX just becomes silly, when the fight really is about allowing audiences to see them at all. Streaming films also reflect the rapidly changing priorities of audiences who are less likely to go the movies unless it's an event-sized “Avengers: Endgame”-level film.

In the end, this may be what ends the film industry's fight to keep Netflix's movies off the awards circuit. Though arguably this debate should have been about the downsides of Hollywood’s longtime gatekeepers, sometimes practical concerns are more effective. When names like Scorsese are going to Netflix, who is going to be the brave industry soul that blocks his awards-show entrance?