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Netflix, You Have a Problem: ‘The Irishman’ Is Too Good (Column)

When the executives at Netflix saw the response to “The Irishman” on Friday, the opening night of the New York Film Festival, they must have been popping champagne corks. The audience was hugely enthusiastic about the film, and the critical response was through the roof, with many hailing Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour swan-song-of-the-Mob drama as a masterpiece. (I wasn’t in the M-word camp, but I called the film a “coldly enthralling knockout” — close enough.) The buzz about “The Irishman” instantly launched it into the awards race, with some declaring it to be the front-runner. And while awards chatter this early on is notoriously unreliable, it seems safe to say that “The Irishman” has now all but guaranteed Netflix a central place at the awards table, in the same way that “Roma” did last year. (The company, in fact, has already launched one key awards player during the fall festivals: Noah Baumbach’s masterful “Marriage Story.”)

So on what planet is there a downside to all that?

Actually, there is a potential downside, one that’s all too real. It’s not about awards. It’s about branding — which, after all, is a major part of what awards are about.

Most movie studios, having spent $160 million to make a film like “The Irishman” (but then, no movie studio has ever spent $160 million to make a film like “The Irishman”), would be breathing a sigh of relief over the fact that it now looks like their gargantuan investment will pay off. But Netflix, as we know, follows the laws of a totally different economic ecosystem; that’s why the company could afford to spend so much on “The Irishman” in the first place. You know the cliché everyone always trots out about the budget of this or that indie film — that it “would be the catering budget” on such-and-such a blockbuster? For Netflix, $160 million is a catering budget. For most studios, it’s a potential bank-breaker, and when Disney or Paramount spends that much money on a film (not counting marketing costs), they intend, and expect, to make it back.

The Netflix plan turns that cost/benefit equation on its head. The company doesn’t expect, or need, to profit from “The Irishman” by wooing an audience into a movie theater to purchase tickets that add up to something larger than what the movie costs. In truth, the fact that “The Irishman” will play in as many movie theaters as it does, for about a month, starting on Nov. 1, is — for Netflix — less a stab toward profit than a kind of concession. It’s Netflix saying, “Okay, we’ll play this movie the old-fashioned way, even though it’s not our business plan.” Their business plan is to get people around the globe to subscribe to Netflix. In that sense, “The Irishman” is an incredibly expensive billboard, a way of upping subscriptions by announcing to the world: This is the streaming club you want to belong to.

Yet “The Irishman,” like “Roma” before it, is also a billboard directed at filmmakers. It’s saying to them: This is the streaming service you want to make your movie at. And that’s where the high cinematic achievement of “The Irishman,” now that the film has been unveiled, could create a nasty bit of friction.

Many of those who saw the movie on Friday and hailed its quality (in reviews, tweets, etc.) made the point that “The Irishman” deserves to be seen on the big screen. Though I’m not alone in thinking the film has a mini-series aspect to it, I wouldn’t dispute that point, and I can’t imagine anyone else would either. “The Irishman” was made, by one of the key film virtuosos of the last half century, as a work of cinema to be shared in the secular temple that the movie theater still is. (Yes, even with all those trailers, with the $10 Cokes and the idiots on their cell phones.) I think a great many people will want to experience it that way. Scorsese has made a movie powerful enough to have achieved that buzzy, elusive, you-just-gotta-see-it factor. Meaning: You gotta see it in a theater.

So let’s pretend, for a moment, that the picture was being released by Warner Bros., the company that 29 years ago financed and distributed “GoodFellas.” What kind of life would “The Irishman” enjoy in theaters under those circumstances? Now that we’ve seen it, we can speculate about that in a more informed way than we might have a week ago. Based on its quality, its ecstatic reviews, its veritable summit meeting of acting legends (Al Pacino, amazingly, had never worked with Scorsese before, and he gives the film’s most memorable performance), I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that “The Irishman,” in theaters, would have the potential to be the rare dramatic feature that makes $100 million in the U.S. alone. If so, that would be a triumph for its studio.

But it would be more than that. The amount of money a movie makes isn’t just a measure of profit. It’s a measure of the audience’s collective passion. It’s connected to how much a film drives the conversation, to how much it enters the bloodstream of our culture.

I would argue that this year, there’s going to be a powerful gap — in fact, you could call it a chasm — between the way “The Irishman” would have played at theaters had it been released by a conventional studio and the way that it will play in theaters in the glorified, seam-busting version of a limited release under Netflix.

We saw that kind of gap last year with “Roma.” Yet it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as this year’s will be, since the box-office expectations for “Roma,” a foreign-language art film, were far lower. I believe that given a full-scale release in theaters, “Roma” could have grossed $20 to $30 million. But the fact that it made so much less didn’t matter all that much. The buzz factor, in that case, came from the singular, over-the-top, once-every-20-years-if-you’re-lucky quality of the reviews, with the movie crowning more 10 Best lists than you could count and sweeping every critic group’s year-end awards, as critic after critic (though not this one) stood up and declared “Roma” to be a work of art for the ages.

If the film had become a $30 million crossover art-film smash, would that have helped it at the Oscars? Let’s say this much: It wouldn’t have hurt. Yet speculating on that kind of alternative scenario is a fool’s game; we can never know. In the case of “The Irishman,” however, the chasm between what the movie could have been — in theaters — and what it will be speaks to something fundamental that reaches beyond the awards race. It speaks to what cinema is. I predict that when it plays in, say, 500 theaters for a handful of weeks, that release is going to feel constricted, choked off, and frustrating in a way that the release of “Roma” didn’t quite. Of course, what Netflix would say is: On Nov. 27, just 26 days after it premieres, viewers all over the world will get to see “The Irishman” in the comfort of their own homes. Netflix would ask: What’s bad about that? Netflix would say: Welcome to the future.

But is it? For months now, Scorsese has been doing his bit for Netflix by declaring, in one interview after another, that no other studio would make “The Irishman.” That makes Netflix sound like the savior of cinema. “We make the movies that no one else will!”

Yet there’s an anomalous element to the budget of “The Irishman.” The reason that no conventional studio would have made the film isn’t that no studio would back Martin Scorsese bringing his grand vision to the big screen. It’s that the bold new technology required for the de-aging process is, right now, insanely expensive. “The Irishman” doesn’t look like a movie that should have cost $160 million. And in the coming years, it won’t be. Netflix ponied up a king’s ransom to make their billboard, their subscriber bait and film-director recruitment poster. On some level they’re broadcasting the message: If we can get Martin Scorsese, then who can’t we get?

But that’s where the unalloyed filmmaking excitement of “The Irishman” could prove to be a fly in the ointment. Netflix has, in fact, made such a good movie that a vast audience of people — a world of people — are going to want to see it in movie theaters. And if the film’s relatively limited theatrical release starts to feel like a compromise with that desire, it could give a great many people pause: members of the Academy, and filmmakers who are promised the moon if they make their next movie with Netflix. Sure, they’ll get to make the film they want, and that isn’t nothing. But the release of “The Irishman” is destined to shine a light on the underlying metaphysical question: Is home viewing really the moon? The 20th century is officially behind us, but it may not be going out of style nearly as quickly as the executives at Netflix would like it to.

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