Last September, Netflix’s Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish-language period piece, staked its place as the frontrunner for the best picture Oscar after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the first in a battery of victories that looked likely to climax at the Academy Awards. In the end, of course, the movie fell short, earning laurels for director, cinematographer and foreign-language film but being outflanked for best picture by that feel-good drama Green Book, a movie helmed by Peter Farrelly, a cineaste more famous for Dumb and Dumber than awards entries.
Now Netflix is back, this time with three heavyweight contenders.
Foremost among them is The Irishman from director Martin Scorsese and the power combo of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Ten years in the works, the picture cost $160 million and is toplined by a team (including writer Steven Zaillian) that can boast six Oscars among them. It’s vintage Scorsese, a throwback to such admired works as 1990’s GoodFellas and 1995’s Casino and a far cry from his most recent endeavor, the spiritually thick but dramatically thin Silence.
Should Irishman fall short, Netflix has two beefy backups: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, the portrait of a divorce starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver; and The Two Popes, director Fernando Meirelles’ dialogue between two pontiffs, featuring Jonathan Pryce (Francis I) and Anthony Hopkins (Benedict XVI).
Combine these films’ budgets and they might give even Marvel cause for concern; add up Netflix’s spend on the campaigns (rivals cite numbers deep into eight figures) and it makes Roma‘s outlay look like lunch money. Still, none of these titles is without challenges for a company that has made winning best picture the sine qua non of its movie ambitions.
The most notable obstacle is Irishman‘s 209-minute length, nine more than 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (the longest best-picture winner of the 21st century) and a half-hour less than the longest winner in history, 1939’s Gone With the Wind (three hours and 58 minutes). But as one marketing executive notes, “People sit at home and watch 12 hours of The Crown, so why not this?”
So far, that doesn’t seem to have deterred voters. When the film made its Academy debut Oct. 26, the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills was almost full and Scorsese was greeted with a standing ovation (attendees differ on the enthusiasm shown for the picture itself).
While Netflix released The Irishman in select indie theaters Nov. 1, it was unable to reach an agreement with major cinema chains such as AMC and Cineplex: It wanted to stream the film starting Nov. 27. In a New York Times interview, NATO president John Fithian slammed the company, saying, “The Irishman is going to play on one-tenth of the screens it should have played on.”
Will voters see it in a theater? No, says one Academy member, even if it means sacrificing the immersive experience Scorsese has so passionately touted, especially in recent comments bashing Marvel’s superhero films. Most observers believe Roma was hurt by being viewed on a TV even more than by its black-and-white images or subtitles.
Marriage Story is as personal as the Scorsese film is panoramic. But, says another Academy voter, only one feature centered on divorce has ever been named best picture — and, he asks, “Is this one as good as Kramer vs. Kramer?” That 1979 drama, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, won five Oscars despite depicting its leading lady in a harsh light.
Audiences in the post-#MeToo era may have trouble accepting a movie that largely takes the man’s point of view, especially if rivals dredge up comparisons to the real-life split between Baumbach and his ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, on which the picture is loosely based. That kind of negative campaigning has dented contenders in the past.
The Two Popes faces a similar issue. While writer Anthony McCarten (who’s made a specialty of historical characters, such as Darkest Hour‘s Winston Churchill) claims the two top-ranked clergymen had three recorded meetings before Argentine cardinal Jorge Bergoglio ascended the Vatican throne, experts on Roman Catholicism will likely poke holes at his rose-hued view of their relationship — especially following Benedict’s much-discussed 6,000-word April epistle, which was widely perceived as an attack on Francis.
All these candidates have bolted out of the gate fast thanks to positive word-of-mouth and festival acclaim. Irishman has also benefited from an unusual full-court press from its director and stars, who not only were highly visible at the Oct. 27 Governors Awards but also graced a weekend packed with guild screenings, roundtables and even a private showing for Jerry Seinfeld and his pals.
Soon they’ll have to take on rivals such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, whose leads have largely been MIA, except for attending the Governors Awards and doing a Nov. 1 live-stream Q&A. Netflix also has to consider how the Academy’s newly enlarged voting membership of 8,628 will play out in the final result.
But first Scorsese will have to convince voters to sit through his movie; Baumbach will have to persuade them that his film is fiction and not fact; and Meirelles will have to do the opposite: argue credibly that his picture is fact and not fiction.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.