New to Netflix: Scorsese's Next Film the future of the cinematic landscape

"to me, cinema is not a movie or a TV screen, and it’s not a seat in a building versus one in your living room. It’s the art of motion pictures." (IndieWire, 2015)

-Ted Sarandon, Netflix Head of Content Acquisition.

“Netflix my ass.”

Tim Rothman, Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Tom Rothman declared after showing early footage from Blade Runner 2049 to convention attendees (ScreenDaily, 2017).

Whether you side with Ted Sarandon, or Tim Rothman, one thing is undeniable: the current climate for film distribution is changing. A model for the delivery of films, which has been relatively untouched for the last century-or-so of cinema, is now being threatened by the proliferation of View-on-Demand services; the rise of Netflix has led to an examination of the future of film distribution, and of cinema itself – and most interestingly, perhaps, where the lines between cinema and television meet in this level playing-field. Here I hope to denote some of the key issues with this sea-change, taking in the positive aspects of this new marketplace, the potential negative implications, and the possible future of video distribution and theatrical release. While the wider media landscape will be considered, there will be a leaning toward an independent filmmaking perspective.

In March it was announced that Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, was bought by Netflix – “reportedly shell[ing] out $105 million for the global rights to this film … eyeing a 2019 release on Netflix that would come day-and-date with an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run” (MovieWeb, 2017). Netflix has been acquiring the first-release of various titles over the past few years; Netflix and Amazon bought a combined 14 titles at Sundance Film Festival alone this year (The Verge, 2017). Last year’s festival saw Amazon paying $10m for the distribution rights to Manchester by the Sea, which garnered six Oscar nominations, including Casey Affleck being awarded Best Actor; “And so, with the help of Sundance, Amazon beat Netflix to the first Best Picture nom for a streaming service” (The Verge, 2017). This demonstrates the competition between the two leading video-streaming services to bring prestige content to their services. It’s also not the first time established directors have featured original content on VOD platforms; David Fincher, Woody Allen, Baz Luhrmann and The Wachowski’s have all produced content for Netflix or Amazon. The key difference with these cases is that all of these shows were in a ‘television’ format; they were always intended for small-screen distribution. The news that Scorsese’s next film will be featured on Netflix, however, is a seismic shift in film distribution.

The Irishman is projected to cost $125million (SlashFilm, 2017); this is the first time a film of this size has been set for VOD release. Unlike previous acquisitions, this film seemed bound for a huge theatrical release; It’s cast includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, which would add to box-office draw. The return to the gangster-crime genre, which Scorsese has become synonymous with, would also have generated great excitement. With the film having been in development for decades, it is certain that the film would have created a much-needed buzz around its release. Yet, instead of the audience going to see The Irishman in cinemas, the majority will watch this big-budget film from the comfort of their own homes. This is a testament to the power and audience size of Netflix, and of streaming services in general; to spend such a large amount of money for a huge title, and still be commercially viable, indicates the resources Netflix has at its disposal.

By examining those resources and taking a financial perspective, it is clear to see why a film like The Irishman may find a home on Netflix. Scorsese’s last project, Silence, floundered at the box office, “With a $46m production budget, Silence has so far taken just over $7m in the US” (Pulver, 2017), and his last mega-budget outing, Hugo, “cost a reported $170 million and sadly didn’t make much more than that at the box-office” (SlashFilm, 2017). While his 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street nearly quadrupled it’s budget of $100million at cinemas (Box Office Mojo), the film featured a bankable star in Leonardo DiCaprio. The Irishman, while starring two titans of the screen in De Niro and Pacino, their star power could be seen as waning now they’re both in their seventies. The film will also feature cutting-edge VFX, with “a significant portion of The Irishman‘s budget … going towards de-aging the three leads” (SlashFilm, 2017). Such a huge undertaking in post-production could see the final cost of the film balloon beyond its $125million projection – which has already inflated by $25million. Paramount Studios felt the film was too risky, especially after the failure of Silence (which is “thought to have contributed to Brad Grey’s recent decision to step down as Paramount CEO” (Pulver, 2017)). Add to this the fact that the film is likely to be R-rated, or an 18 certificate in the UK, it is little wonder that in the current climate and considering previous track-record, Paramount deemed The Irishman too risky to handle.

On the other hand, the acquisition works brilliantly for Netflix. As a marquee title, it will help draw in new customers and retain old ones. Netflix is famously guarded over their rating figures, citing “that it becomes all too easy to quickly categorize shows as flops or successes, something Netflix wants to avoid” (BGR, 2016), preferring instead to provide content for a wide range of audiences. This model means that Netflix does not have to concern itself with attracting as wide an audience as possible, as much commercial television does; one title may attract a certain audience, while another title attracts a different clientele – but both sets of viewers pay the same flat fee per month. Not that The Irishman won’t attract enough viewers to make it’s $105million price tag worth it; Netflix flounced it’s own policy to reveal that Beasts of No Nation drew in 3 million viewers in its first 10 days of release in North America alone (IndieWire, 2015). With examples such as this, and its 69 million worldwide subscriber base, it’s feasible that Scorsese’s film may draw his largest audience in his fifty years of filmmaking – but is almost certain to produce his most meagre box office figures too.

For a director of Scorsese’s stature, he may find himself liberated of the typical constraints of a theatrical release. Hitchcock is credited as saying, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”; we now have the luxury of stopping and starting the content that we view from home. A film could be as long, or as short, as the filmmakers choose.

From an independent filmmaking perspective, Netflix provides a viable and potentially lucrative outlet. Films such as Beasts of No Nation attracting a much bigger audience than would have been possible via a theatrical release, which in Sarandos’ opinion, is “a bigger audience than any specialist film could ever hope for, in its first two week of release, maybe for it’s entire run” (IndieWire, 2017). While Ted Sarandos, as Head of Content Acquisition for Netflix, is not the most neutral source, his point stands - Netflix is opening up films to expanded audiences, from anywhere in the world. Independent filmmakers would fight to gain a limited theatrical release, which meant that audiences may only have a choice of a couple of screenings a day, if the film is even screening in their country. For independent filmmakers, Netflix massively increases the reach of their films. And in turn, this expansive audience means Netflix will happily pay a premium for exclusive streaming rights to independent fare.

The drawback for independent filmmakers is that they may have to live without the kudos of a theatrical release – ‘Beasts on No Nation earned “just $50,699 in its opening weekend” (IndieWire, 2017). Sarandos revealed that "There’s no theatrical revenue expectation in our business model on any movie," (MovieWeb, 2015); Sarandos’ statement suggests he would happily do away with distributing the film in cinemas, if it weren’t for the need to qualify the films for award contention. Many cinema chains refused to show the film, as it violates the 90-day home entertainment window - “the primary protector of their status quo, the sequential release window structure, is being challenged” (Crisp, 180, 2015). Yet the director of Beasts of No Nation, Gary Fukunaga, is clearly more concerned with the future of cinema distribution:

"It’s a complicated question for me, because I have to walk the line between being very supportive of Netflix, because they’ve been so supportive of us and the film, but also fighting to keep cinema a sacred sort of experience and one that won’t be taken away in the future because of a lack of places to do it” (IndieWire, 2015).

If more and more independent titles are acquired by VOD services, the independent cinema industry will find it increasingly hard to compete. What draw does a film have if it’s available on Amazon Instant at the same time? As Netflix and Amazon gain more respect within the industry, it may not even be necessary to have a theatrical release to be within Oscar consideration – VOD release may be good enough for a title to be in contention. Should this happen, VOD services would then have no reason to theatrically release a film.

Sheri Chinen Biesen argues in The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century that “Netflix has … revived a sense of cinema culture … that has faded in recent years” (Biesen, 2016, 135), stating that home viewing has opened up a whole trove of classic cinema to a new audience – and audience with complete control of their film-viewing environment. Perhaps it is time for independent filmmakers to face the facts and de-romanticize a cinema release; part of the appeal for filmmakers is to see their film in cinemas, the thrill of seeing their efforts projected onto big screens to big audiences. We may see filmmakers beginning to eschew this dream, instead choosing to sell the rights to a VOD service, instead satisfied in the knowledge that their film is being seen by an audience of millions all over the world.

Film and television are beginning to share a home. What we may see in the future is ‘TV’ shows which choose to have varying episode lengths; no longer tethered to the needs of advertising and scheduling, they could have an episode of 20 minutes followed by one 100 minutes in length. Similarly, filmmakers no longer need to make films to satisfy a theatrical audience; is it possible to have a feature release under 60 minutes in length? Could magnum opus projects be split into various films, where previously this would never have been feasible?

As we keep being told, we are in a supposed ‘golden age’ of television, with actors choosing the longer character development of television, and budgets for such projects increasing massively. Coupled with filming equipment and technology becoming cheaper, we have seen television becoming more cinematic. With film titles finding distribution on Netflix, we may see cinema becoming more televisual. Will a viewer used to binge-watching television shows in 30-minute chunks want to spend three uninterrupted hours watching a film? While, as previously stated, it is possible for projects to become any length they choose, it is equally likely that films will become leaner, in order to compete in a multitudinous, saturated marketplace; films could even be split into two 45-minute episodes. The boundaries between film and television are becoming arbitrary, and we may begin to see these boundaries blur as the two increasingly share a stage.

Like a football club making a marquee signing, spending big money to attract a prestige asset, Netflix is attempting to gain dominance by bolstering its roster of film content with Scorsese’s The Irishman. The acquisition of this film is a big statement of intent from the streaming giant. Not content with revolutionising television, VOD services are now looking to disrupt the film distribution model.

This could lead to a new golden age of film, in which filmmakers are given more creative freedom; the distributor safe in the knowledge their film will satisfy an audience, an audience watching from their homes, wherever they are in the world. But at what cost will this change be wrought? Will we lose a lot of our most cherished cinemas? Will we only venture out of our homes for spectacular, effects-driven movies? If the ethos of Netflix is a pluralist approach, whereby audiences are given as much choice as possible as to how they consume their content, we must retain the ability to choose the shared cinematic experience.


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Written by Josh Brown

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