Anne Thompson of Indiewire, who broke the news of the Netflix deal, noted that The Irishman had long been planned as a Paramount Pictures production. Paramount distributed Scorsese’s last four movies, three of which were huge hits: Shutter Island ($294 million worldwide), Hugo ($185 million worldwide), and The Wolf of Wall Street ($392 million worldwide). Though all had big budgets, Scorsese’s brand recognition is peerless. His name, and the A-list movie stars who work with him, are usually enough to attract audiences, even if the film is a baroque, profane, sexually explicit 3-hour comedy about a sociopathic Wall Street broker.
Yet, Scorsese’s most recent effort, Silence, was a bomb. It cost some $40 million to produce and has grossed only $7 million, receiving just one Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography) after its late-December release failed to draw audiences. Paramount arguably botched its roll-out, though the studio was hampered by the crowded slate of awards films (including Arrival and Fences) and by being unsure until late in the season that Silence would even be ready for awards contention. The film itself is an undoubtedly punishing watch and probably would have benefitted from opening ahead of the usual glut of prestige Christmas films.
Though Silence’s failure was very specific, it seems to have scared Paramount off. According to Thompson, an industry source put it this way: “Paramount is not in the position to take risks. This way, he can make the project he wants.” There’s no better indicator of how much the film industry is changing than the fact that a Scorsese gangster film starring De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci seems risky, and Netflix is the safe haven to make the big-budget picture of your dreams. Some of Paramount’s upcoming projects might seem, on paper, riskier, such as a sequel to Daddy’s Home featuring Mel Gibson; certainly, the chances at awards contention are miniscule. But that is the calculation executives made.
In the world of streaming media, Amazon has so far proven itself far more attractive to big-name directors, because it gives films a proper theatrical release and waits for months before moving them onto its online Prime service for viewers at home. That approach is how Amazon acquired Manchester by the Sea at last year’s Sundance film festival and got it a Best Picture nomination, and turned Love & Friendship into one of the surprise indie successes of the year. Netflix, on the other hand, only puts its films in a handful of theaters to qualify them for awards eligibility. It mostly expects viewers to watch movies at home (an approach that has, so far, gotten the company ignored by Oscar voters and beaten to big acquisitions at Sundance and other festivals).
Making The Irishman is on a whole other scale than the small indie films Netflix has worked on so far. Though Thompson reported that the deal will include a “limited Oscar-qualifying release” in theaters, this is an expensive film that will be made for television screens first and foremost. There is a chance that the appeal of Scorsese would be enough to break the embargo big theater chains have imposed on Netflix’s releases, but it’s unclear if that’s something Netflix even wants. After all, the primary purpose of these investments is to draw subscribers, not to make money in cinemas.