Oscars 2020: How Netflix Plans to Win Best Picture With Scorsese's Mob Drama

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Martin Scorsese has asked Netflix for a wide release for his big-budget crime film 'The Irishman.'

After ‘Roma’ comes up short, 'The Irishman' may get a wide theatrical release as competitors clamor for the streamer (and new MPAA member) to report box office figures: "They should have to play by the same rules all of the rest of us do."

The champagne bottles at Netflix's afterparty were still corked Feb. 24 when the streaming company offered Oscar viewers the first peek at next year's awards season. A teaser for Martin Scorsese's upcoming gangster drama The Irishman aired midway through the Academy Awards telecast, with a simple phrase appended: "In Theaters Next Fall." That's a slight tweak from the language Netflix used in its teaser for Roma, "In Select Theaters," and the word choice indicates how the company that once eschewed theatrical windows plans to evolve for its biggest film yet.

Scorsese wants a wide theatrical release for his more than $125 million gangster movie, and two industry sources with knowledge of talks between Netflix and theater owners tell The Hollywood Reporter that the streaming company is working to get him one. To do so, Netflix will have to expand the three-week art house theatrical window it pioneered amid controversy this awards season and will have to allow theater owners to report box office numbers, which the streamer did not do for Roma.

"Netflix wants a big footprint for The Irishman," says one industry source. "They've put themselves in a position by supporting these kinds of filmmakers where they have to come to grips with the theatrical business model and how it works."

Netflix is facing pressure from other industry groups to conform to Hollywood norms to a greater degree than it did on its release of Alfonso Cuarón's Spanish-language drama, which won three Oscars (for directing, foreign-language film and cinematography) but lost best picture to Universal Pictures' Green Book, in part, at least according to interviews with several Academy members, because Oscar voters penalized the company for its business model.

In addition to The Irishman, Netflix also is looking at its theatrical strategies for at least five other potential awards films, including Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, David Michôd's The King, Dee Rees' The Last Thing He Wanted, Fernando Meirelles' The Pope and an as-yet-untitled Noah Baumbach film starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

A cohort of Academy members led by directors branch governor Steven Spielberg is pushing for a rule change at the organization that would require a movie to have an exclusive theatrical window of at least four weeks to be eligible for major Oscars. "I hope all of us really continue to believe that the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience," Spielberg said a week before the Oscars while accepting an award from the Cinema Audio Society, in an apparent plea to his peers to resist Netflix's increasing power in Hollywood. "I'm a firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever."

The Academy's current rule, passed in 2012, requires no exclusive theatrical window at all. "People are feeling very strongly that if this loophole continues, it could destroy the whole concept of cinema," says one member of the Academy's executive branch. If the Academy takes up the issue, it likely will do so in a rules committee meeting in the spring. In 2017, after the five-part ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America won an Oscar, the Academy changed its rules within six weeks to stipulate that multipart series would not be eligible for awards consideration. "This won't go down as easily and quickly as the O.J. thing," says the executive branch member. "You're going to have a huge fight because a lot of Academy members are conflicted."

At the MPAA, which welcomed Netflix as a new member in January, other studios are advocating for the company to be transparent about its box office numbers. "Now that they're in the MPAA, they should have to play by the same rules all of the rest of us do," says one executive from a member studio. There are also constituencies at the producers and directors guilds pushing for those organizations to address Netflix's role in the industry in their own groups' rules — Roma won the DGA's top award, and was nominated for the PGA's, but lost to Green Book in a preview of the movie's Oscar night fate.

Netflix waged a costly awards campaign for Roma — sources with knowledge of the company's marketing spending on the film place it between $25 million and $40 million, a number that included a museum-style costume exhibit, a 6-pound coffee-table book and a blitzkrieg ad and event spend. The campaign was groundbreaking for the streaming company, which modified its day-and-date theatrical strategy for Roma and earned its first best picture nomination. "What was all that marketing for?" says another industry source. "It wasn't to drive people to a movie theater."

Like Roma, The Irishman will call for special handling, but the film is likely to entice wider audiences than Cuarón's, which had leisurely pacing, subtitles and a cast with no stars. Based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman tells the deathbed story of a mob hit man who claimed to have had a role in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. First set up at Paramount before ballooning costs deterred that studio, the movie features a cast including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel and a script by Gangs of New York and Schindler's List screenwriter Steve Zaillian. Scorsese shot the movie on both film and digital and is relying on Industrial Light & Magic to de-age his principal cast for flashback sequences.

The 60-second ad that aired for the movie during the Oscars indicates what a high priority The Irishman is for Netflix — ABC was seeking $2 million to $3 million for 30-second spots during the telecast. When the Irishman spot aired, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and film chief Scott Stuber stepped away from their seats in the Dolby Theatre and headed to the bar to watch it on TVs there.

Even with a day-and-date theatrical release unpopular with Oscar voters, Rees' 2017 movie for Netflix, Mudbound, earned four Oscar nominations, and her new movie, The Last Thing He Wanted, based on a 1996 Joan Didion novel, features Oscar winner Anne Hathaway as a journalist caring for her dying father (Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe). Soderbergh's Netflix movie, The Laundromat, about the Panama Papers, features Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman.

On Feb. 25, the streaming service sent an email to its subscribers inviting them to "Celebrate Historic Oscar Wins With Netflix!" by watching Roma and the company's winning documentary short, Period. End of Sentence. Netflix's more than 139 million global subscribers were not the most important audience for this promotion, analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities notes. "Oscars matter to talent," Pachter says. "Netflix is showing talent that you aren't lost if you debut on Netflix. You win an Oscar. They'll use that street cred to attract more talent, so success begets success."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.