Netflix thinks a Scorsese mob drama can win it the Oscar that “Roma” couldn’t

Running it back.
Running it back.
Image: AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar
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Netflix started campaigning for the 2020 Oscars before the 2019 awards were even over.

During this year’s broadcast, Netflix debuted a cryptic 60-second teaser for its upcoming mob drama The Irishman, directed by Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese and starring an all-star lineup of mafia movie veterans including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel.

The ad drove home a point that Netflix desperately wants the theater-purist holdouts of Hollywood to accept: Netflix isn’t going anywhere.

By most standards, Netflix had an impressive Oscars night this year. Its film Roma won three awards, including best director for Alfonso Cuaròn. The wins were arguably enough to vindicate the most expensive awards campaign in history, though Netflix bosses aren’t satisfied. Roma lost the night’s biggest award, best picture, to Green Book, and no amount of complaining by reporters or critics can change the fact that Netflix failed to achieve its ultimate goal of winning best picture.

That’s where The Irishman, a film that seems explicitly designed to earn the streaming service its first-ever best picture trophy, enters the fray. Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt about the hitman Frank Sheeran, who claimed to have killed Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, the film will digitally de-age De Niro, 75, and Pacino, 78, to make the actors look like Sheeran and Hoffa, respectively, in the 1970s.

The Irishman reportedly cost Netflix more than $125 million, or nearly nine Romas, mostly due to the state-of-the-art de-aging technology. That also doesn’t include the $3 million Netflix paid to air the brief Oscars commercial—what is likely to be the first piece of a months-long, eight-figure media blitz to convince Hollywood that the film should already be considered the 2020 best picture favorite.

Scorsese’s movie still doesn’t have a release date (Netflix has said only “autumn”). What we do know, however, is that the streaming company is planning a wide theatrical release for the film, both to indulge Scorsese, who wants the project shown in as many theaters as possible, and also to win over the awards voters who are still resistant to vote for Netflix films because of the company’s internet-first distribution model. Roma was released in select theaters for a limited time in the company’s biggest theatrical rollout to date, but its big-screen run still paled in comparison to that of an average film from a traditional Hollywood studio.

It’s unclear exactly how many Oscar voters refused to vote for Roma as a protest against Netflix, but we know these people exist. Netflix thinks The Irishman could be the film to finally get them to relent.

A younger and more diverse Academy will help Netflix’s case—voters who grew up with the streaming service as a ubiquitous cultural presence are less likely to harbor any resentment toward its disruption of the film industry. But the side of pro-theater, anti-Netflix cinematic purity is well-represented: One of filmmaking’s biggest voices, Steven Spielberg, is no fan of Netflix, and he’s not afraid to say so.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Spielberg is leading a group of Academy voters in pushing for a rule that would require all films to be exclusively in theaters for at least a month before streaming online in order to qualify for the Oscars. If such a rule ever passed, Netflix would be forced to drastically change its distribution strategy if it wanted to continue winning Oscars. The Irishman could be a formidable force, but theater purists won’t be hit so easily.