You shouldn’t despair over the auteur’s move to streaming.
Lest you needed another reminder that the world of cinema is shifting beneath our feet, Indiewire reported yesterday that Martin Scorsese’s new mob drama, The Irishman, was acquired by Netflix for $105 million. Great directors have worked for the streaming platform before, but watching cinema’s staunchest champion make the move feels seismic ‐ even tragic. The film, adapted by Steve Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” will reunite Scorsese with Robert DeNiro to tell the story of mafia hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Such a titanic reunion should be cause for celebration for cinephiles, but the Netflix acquisition has left many wary or despairing. As Anne Thompson announced ominously, “We now live in a world where Netflix is in a better position than any major studio to make a Martin Scrosese-Robert DeNiro gangster movie.”
One can read this development in several different ways ‐ some encouraging, some alarming. On one hand, it seems likely that The Irishman’s transition from Paramount to Netflix has much to do with the depressing box-office turnout for Silence. Scorsese’s long-gestated, meditative film about 17th century Jesuit priests in Japan grossed only $7 million on a $40 million budget and proved too particular and cryptic to gain much awards traction. That his move to Netflix may have been precipitated by mere fiscal necessity casts a pall over the whole transaction.
On the other hand, a director as fiercely intentional as Scorsese would not have made the move were he not certain he could make a film worth seeing ‐ and worth seeing on the small screen. Netflix affords a great deal of creative freedom to its producers, a boon Scorsese may have been denied had he tried to work within the traditional studio system again. Length considerations (the director’s last three films have averaged over 2.5 hours) could be eschewed. And perhaps adapting his cinematic style to a television screen will constitute an exciting new challenge for Scorsese; it could be a way to differentiate The Irishman from Goodfellas and Casino, both of which featured a distinctly big-screen aesthetic.
But perhaps the most exciting prospect is the potential to set a precedent. Scorsese has long lamented the lack of intentionality that has accompanied the proliferation of images in the 21st Century. The more widely available filmmaking technology becomes, he has argued, the less thoughtful the use of those technologies. But Scorsese has also celebrated the potential for film form to evolve, and for young filmmakers to tell stories without the formidable barriers to entry the studio system once posed. Perhaps The Irishman will plant a flag in the digital space, sensitizing a new generation of filmmakers and filmgoers to the quality they should demand of their images, whatever the platform. “[Cinema] should matter to your life,” Scorsese told the Boston Globe last year, lamenting the decline in visual literacy among young people. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.”
If we’re going to admit that cinema’s evolution is inevitable, the best hope for preserving the vitality of the art form is to teach filmgoers that images matter. Scorsese’s advocacy for film preservation and visual literacy — as well as the hyper-simplified, stripped-down style of Silence ‐ represent continued efforts to instill this appreciation in young people. Rather than view The Irishman as an elegy, we should view it as an opportunity to set the bar high for this new generation of media consumers, and to carve out a haven for auteurs online. As Scorsese himself told his daughter in an open letter some years ago, “I’m not writing…in a spirit of defeat. On the contrary, I think the future is bright.”
The Irishman will be released in 2019.