‘Irishman’ tests ‘cinema’ label while courting Oscar voters

‘The Irishman’ official trailer is mobbed up
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Ray Romano, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro star in "The Irishman."

Martin Scorsese caused a stir when he said that Marvel movies are “not cinema,” arguing that huge comic-book franchises are more theme-park attractions than an attempt to convey “emotional, psychological experiences.”

It’s undeniable that special-effects-driven blockbusters operate differently than the films for which Scorsese has been lauded, and that the studio business has changed. But if the lament is about a decline in traditional movie-going, what should we make of Scorsese’s latest, “The Irishman,” which was financed by Netflix, and is likely to be viewed by the vast majority of those who watch it in the comfort of their homes?

Indeed, during the promotional blitz in which he made his Marvel comments, the Oscar-winning director has been upfront about the fact traditional studios balked at the 3 1/2-hour gangster epic, including its high price tag. Netflix, by contrast, “agreed on everything,” he told Variety.

The reasons for that, however, have less to do with championing creativity than branding — specifically, Netflix’s desire to burnish its prestige with Academy Award nominations, following the inroads the service has already made at the Emmys.

Netflix agreed to a limited theatrical release, as is its habit, with “The Irishman” spending 26 days in theaters before making its TV debut heading into Thanksgiving weekend.

While theatrical windows are intended to appease filmmakers and hard-core movie fans, Netflix doesn’t discuss box office. The cost-benefit analysis of “The Irishman” is thus not based on dollars — unlike Marvel movies, which must earn enough to justify those massive budgets — but rather an amorphous, unknown mix of subscriber views, publicity and revenue from admissions.

Scorsese, it’s worth noting, isn’t the only director of his generation to express misgivings about how the movie business is changing. His contemporary, Steven Spielberg, made waves in his capacity as a governor for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, by questioning whether Netflix movies should be eligible.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Spielberg said in a 2018 interview with ITV News. “I don’t believe that films that are given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

Using that logic — informed by a desire to preserve the theatrical experience — should “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story,” Netflix’s other big fall release, be seriously considered for top movie awards?

These issues are complex. As noted, the movie business is changing. Studios are massive conglomerates now, concerned about theme parks and merchandising that also serve their bottom lines, and distribution models keep evolving. Spielberg is no stranger to that, as one of the marquee names recruited to produce for Apple TV+’s new streaming service.

The definition of movies, or “cinema,” is changing too. If that designation isn’t broad enough to encompass comic-book-inspired movies, as Scorsese suggested, should it include movies that aren’t watched primarily in theaters?

Even some critics who have praised Scorsese’s film, citing have likened it to a TV miniseries — hardly a slight, given the extraordinary work that’s being done for television.

Studios have a long history of imposing their wills on talent, but by getting into bed with Netflix, Scorsese has seemingly traded in one master for another, just with slightly different priorities. That’s not necessarily bad, but nor is it a ticket to the moral high ground.

In the same Variety profile, Jane Rosenthal, a producer on “The Irishman” along with her partner and the movie’s star, Robert De Niro, conceded in regard to the theatrical window, “We just want audiences to see the film.”

That’s understandable. As for whether a movie predominantly watched on TV screens qualifies as “cinema,” as with so much right now, that seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

“The Irishman” is playing in select theaters and premieres Nov. 27 on Netflix.