Netflix’s upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic is precision engineered to win Oscars

This is how they win.
This is how they win.
Image: John Shearer/Invision/AP
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Netflix will distribute a film about the life of Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra conductor and composer of West Side Story, Deadline reported yesterday. Bradley Cooper will direct and star, while a consortium of big Hollywood names, including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, will produce.

Joining Spielberg and Scorsese as producers are Joker director Todd Phillips and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, a frequent collaborator of Scorsese’s who worked on The Irishman and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Between them, the group has 12 Academy Award nominations since 2018 alone. A few years ago, this would have been the sort of team Netflix could only dream of assembling. Today, it’s just business as usual for the streaming service.

On the heels of its 24 Oscar nominations this year (more than any other film studio), Netflix has gone from an awards afterthought to arguably the industry’s most prestigious distributor in a few short years. While some still fear Netflix’s streaming-focused release strategy is hurting the traditional theatrical model, the company’s deep pockets, global presence, and willingness to task risks on projects other studios wouldn’t touch are endearing the company to Hollywood’s most sought-after talent.

Spielberg is apparently one of those coveted names now coming around to the inevitability of Netflix. A longtime proponent of the theatrical experience, the Jurassic Park filmmaker has been critical of streaming services in the past, going as far as to argue Netflix films shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars. We can only assume he has since revised that stance.

To appease the Hollywood royalty involved (and no doubt to boost its awards case), Netflix will give the as-yet-unnamed Bernstein film “a significant theatrical release before the film premieres on its streaming site, just as it did for Scorsese on The Irishman,” according to Deadline. Scorsese has said that Netflix was the only company that allowed him to make the three-hour mafia epic the way he wanted to make it. (Read: It gave him lots of money.)

The Bernstein project had been in the works at Paramount Pictures for years before Netflix secured the rights. It’s unclear why Paramount allowed it to fall into the hands of a rival distributor just days after it took the Oscars by storm. Perhaps the company, now struggling due to a history of poor management amid the increased competition for content, thought the movie was too much of a box-office risk.

Netflix, meanwhile, doesn’t care about ticket sales. It wants films that can do two things: Convince other Hollywood creators that it’s a great place to work, and buttress its library for both existing and potential subscribers around the world. The streaming service’s treatment of The Irishman, which Netflix claims was watched by 26 million users in its first week of release, likely helped persuade Cooper and company to take their awards-ready idea to the streaming service.

And if The Irishman fails to earn Netflix its first Oscar for best picture on Feb. 9 (World War I film 1917 and South Korean thriller Parasite are currently the two favorites), or next year, then maybe the Bernstein film to accomplish the feat. According to Deadline, it will officially enter production early next year, likely with a fall 2021 release in mind.

With a director and star coming off the critically acclaimed film A Star Is Born, a roster of industry veterans shepherding the project, a script by Oscar winner Josh Singer, and the rights to use Bernstein’s famous compositions, the upcoming movie seems like it was concocted in a lab specifically to appeal to Oscar voters. And that’s exactly how Netflix wants it.