Three years ago, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street made nearly $400 million at the worldwide box office. Earlier this year, his long-awaited passion project Silence made a mere $7 million. Cue spit take:
From just under $400m to $7m? Oh, that’s bad. That’s really bad. Passion projects like Silence which directors spend years trying to make often struggle at the box office. After all, if such projects were built around a vaguely commercial idea and thus easy to market they wouldn’t take so long to get made. Still, the drop-off between Wall Street and Silence for Scorsese is more dramatic than usual. Is that why Scorsese’s reportedly throwing in the towel on traditional theatrical distribution for his next movie and instead working with Netflix?
As IndieWire reported, the recent ousting of Paramount head Brad Grey put Scorese’s next film The Irishman – set to star Robert De Niro as a notorious mob hitman who may or may not have had something to do with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa – into limbo. Paramount distributed both Wolf and Silence and had been expected to do the same for Irishman. However, with Grey out, and the embarrassing failure of Silence being a “final straw” reason for his sudden departure, The Irishman is suddenly an orphaned project, but not for long:
In a sign of the ongoing power shift in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s $100-million gangster movie The Irishman, his ninth starring Robert De Niro, has been scooped up by Netflix, which is in the process of closing a deal to release the movie to its 93 million subscribers in 190 countries. As someone close to the deal put it, “Scorsese’s movie is a risky deal, and Paramount is not in the position to take risks. This way, he can make the project he wants.”
This both is and is not stunning news:
OMG, wow, Scorsese is making a Netflix movie?!? One of the greatest directors of all time? The Goodfellas guy with the big eyebrows? Him. Hollywood is so utterly broken that this walking legend has to turn to Netflix for his next movie? I am stunned – stunned! – I tell you.
Yeah, but who are we kidding here? Netflix or places like it are where almost all non-blockbuster movies are heading anyway, with a great deal of potential movies simply becoming TV shows or limited series somewhere on cable/streaming. Plus, Scorsese has already been an active TV producer and director (with Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl). So, it’s not like his work is only exclusively meant for the big screen.
To be clear, Irishman already had deals in place with STX Entertainment (a relatively new mini-major focusing on mid-budget fare) and Media Asia (to handle distribution in China). This Netflix deal, if it goes through, will apparently negate both of those pre-existing deals. So, there were other entities in the industry which wanted to produce Scorsese’s next movie; they just couldn’t compete with Netflix.
Legends like Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (who I bring up since his most recent film, The BFG, also flopped) are just supposed to always be able to keep making movies and putting them out in theaters. That’s the law, that is if the law is based entirely on nice thoughts and a potentially reckless respect for elders, which it isn’t. In reality, some of Hollywood’s greatest directors spent their final years in involuntarily retirement, preferring to keep working if only someone would give them another chance after a string of flops.
But they didn’t have Netflix and it’s mysteriously bottomless supply of cash and artistic freedom to turn to. Remember, Spielberg’s Lincoln (which grossed $275m worldwide) was almost forced into being an HBO Original Movie by a Hollywood establishment which just didn’t see any money in it. Scorsese’s Wolf (which grossed $392m) went through many years of lawsuits and rewrites. Wolf, in fact, is still the subject of some legal scrutiny as it appears the film’s financier, Red Granite Pictures, might have stolen its money from the Malaysian government (they, of course, deny the charges). A legend like Warren Beatty recently tried to go it alone with his passion project Rules Don’t Apply and ended up with 14 listed producers and a final film which seemed so micromanaged and excessively choppy I came to think of it as the Suicide Squad of Oscar bait movies.
At a certain point, don’t you just give in to the inevitable? The theatrical audience is shrinking. Netflix is always expanding its worldwide reach, and Amazon has deep pockets to pluck films off the festival circuit. Why go looking, yet again, for financing from millionaires who might turn out to be crooks? Netflix is right there, drowning in a sea of debt to finance its unprecedented push into original programming.
Spielberg’s next movie, Ready Player One, is a big blockbuster everyone around the world will see in theaters, but we should all be so lucky. If Netflix is Scorsese’s best option for The Irishman why not go with them? It will still technically play in theaters for an awards-qualifying run. As Matt Damon recently said, “It’s critical we have the Amazons and the Netflixes. More people are going to see Manchester By the Sea because it’s on Amazon than would ever get a chance with a platform release. That’s our ticket to sustainability with these smaller movies. Because Lord knows it’s a struggle to get them made.”
You just know it has to annoy Ted Sarandos that Amazon beat him to the punch in becoming the first streaming service to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Best Picture (Manchester By the Sea). The Irishman will likely be an Oscar contender when (if it arrives on schedule) in 2019. The Academy could ignore Beasts of a Southern Wild, but if Scorsese does the Scorsese thing with mob movies The Irishman will likely be too hard to ignore.
However, apparently Scorsese himself still has mixed feelings about watching movies outside of a theater, telling the BFI Southbank in London last night, “The problem now is that it is everything around the frame that is distracting. Now you can see a film on an iPad. You might be able to push it closer to your [face] in your bedroom, just lock the door and look at it if you can, but I do find just glimpsing stuff here or there, even watching a film at home on a big-screen TV, there is still stuff around the room. There’s a phone that rings. People go by. It is not the best way.”
But, apparently, for a $100m check and promise of creative freedom he can learn to live with it.