Ben’s Column: Alfonso, Marty, and Oscar (Netflix’s Rise to Awards Prominence)

In the brilliant opening scene of 2010’s The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), argues with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) over his obsession with obtaining membership to one of Harvard’s exclusive finals clubs. As hard as she tries to steer the conversation to another subject, his brain is laser-focused on being admitted as one of the best in the best club at the best university, until it spirals out of control when she breaks up with him and he insults her. “There’s a difference between being obsessed and being motivated”, she says, sensing the darkness behind his eyes, the inherent need for him to feel accepted. It’s that obsession, the film argues, that leads Zuckerberg to create one of the largest, most influential but toxic social media sites in the world.

Nobody could have predicted in the early days of 2015 when Netflix debuted their first narrative feature, Cari Jojo Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, how similarly focused the streaming giant would be in its quest for major award’s recognition. Netflix had produced documentaries since 2012, and even had early Oscar success with the Egyptian political film The Square in 2013, and Virunga in 2014, both earning Best Documentary Feature nominations but no wins. Fast forward a few years and a few nominations in lesser categories later, and Netflix’s dominance came to a head with the 2018 Best Picture nomination for Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, along with 14 other nominations.

After the Oscars, critics, most notably Stephen Speilberg, decried Netflix’s release strategy and adhering to the Academy’s eligibility requirements – a debate that is still raging. The standard three month theatrical release window was largely ignored, debuting at fall festivals and releasing online a mere 3 weeks after debuting in theaters. Once Oscar buzz had built up to where a Best Picture nomination was all but inevitable, Netflix reportedly spent between $25 and $50 million dollars in promotions, compared to the film’s $15 million dollar production budget, though the notably obtuse company wouldn’t confirm the precise number. As history would have it, though, Roma conspicuously ended up losing the main prize to Green Book, which only left Netflix hungry for more. It remains to be seen how much Netflix will spend in For Your Consideration marketing for The Irishman, but you have to imagine the company will want to get their money’s worth.

Of course, the argument doesn’t hold up that Roma’s loss led to Netflix buying distribution rights for Martin Scorsese’s latest project, The Irishman. First, Netflix reportedly picked up the tab after Paramount had dropped out in 2017, before Roma had even sniffed an Oscar nom. Second, can you blame Netflix for wanting to own the rights to the next, and possibly last, Martin Scorsese gangster epic? Especially when the legendary director is reuniting with the heaviest of heavyweights of the genre that he helped cultivate in the modern era: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and – for the first time – Al Pacino.

Though a Best Picture win for The Irishman is far from inevitable, it’s still a contender – despite getting blanked in all categories at the Golden Globes. With Roma, a Best Picture win always felt like a pipe dream. Sure, it was most critics’ favorite amongst the field, but that only gets a film so far in winning Oscar’s favor. So what’s the difference between the two? Why does it seem like The Irsihman’s win is a much safer bet, when Roma had an uphill battle to fight from the beginning? On its face, the most glaring answer has to be Roma’s international appeal versus The Irishman’s white Americana. Roma was spoken solely in Spanish/Mixtec with subtitles, had no well-known actors to American audiences (it was the first time its star, Yalitza Aparicio, had ever acted!), had a disarmingly slow pace at times, and was shot in black and white. Of course, no foreign film has ever won Best Picture at the Academy Awards either. The film’s appearance on Netflix’s platform had to be a large part of its success, when the theater-going public would primarily avoid a foreign-language indie drama. Indeed, the film barely made over $1 million dollars during its time in theaters.

By contrast, The Irishman is loaded with star power. Its headliners (De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino) have 4 Oscars combined. Scorsese, though he’s only received one, has been nominated 12 times over his storied career. And, again, it’s another adapted gangster epic, Scorsese’s bread and butter, this time covering the allegedly true peek behind the curtain of the life of Jimmy Hoffa. You may as well ask if Bob Ross can paint a pretty mountain at sunset.

Roma had many more demons to overcome than being a foreign language film. The Best Picture preferential ballot – the only Academy Award that uses such a ballot – tends to reward a film that skewers closer to the center of popular tastes like Green Book, and marginalize films that either weren’t as widely seen or were more polarizing. It didn’t help either that members of the Academy didn’t take too kindly to Netflix, the newcomer, disrupting the natural order of things with its irregular release strategy. And, despite recent efforts at diversifying after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Academy membership remains largely composed of elderly, white men.

There’s a scene in The Irishman when Russel Buffalino (Pesci) is trying to earn the favor of Frank Sheeran’s (De Niro) daughter by gifting her a pair of ice skates, with a $100 bill stuffed inside. “She said thank you once, that’s enough”, he deflects, when she doesn’t show the excitement that he had hoped for. Maybe it’s a stretch to consider the line as Scorsese winking to the audience, referring to his own track record with the Academy. Perhaps it’s easy to say that the Academy doesn’t favor Alfonso Cuaron as much as it does Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has enjoyed a longer career that has earned him more nominations – plus a Best Picture win for 2007’s The Departed – but he only has one win as a director. But Cuaron now is the recipient of four Oscars: two for directing – including one for Roma – one for Cinematography (Roma) and one for Film Editing (Gravity).

It should be stated that The Irishman is not Netflix’s only horse in this year’s race. Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s dramedy that centers on a divorcing couple, has earned its own fair share of praise and accolades already, and will surely be another Best Picture contender. Also, to a lesser extent, is Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, which is a great actor showcase, but doesn’t add up to a rollicking pleasure in the same ways the other films do. The biggest difference between the main two, though, are their budgets – $18 million for Marriage Story versus $159 million for The Irishman – plus the name-brand recognition of Scorsese against Baumbach, a much more understated, “indie” director. Marriage Story even currently has a leg up on Scorsese’s film, as Laura Dern won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actress, where she’ll surely be the favorite in the same category at the Oscars.

And don’t forget about 2019’s other contender from an American master director – Quentin Tarantino’s ode to yesteryear One Upon a Time.. In Hollywood. It may be a stereotype that the Academy loves films about Hollywood, but Tarantino’s latest largely mirrors the same sensitivities as The Irishman. Both films can be read as the director’s wistful looks back on their own careers. Both deal with pensive characters that have been left behind by a changing American culture. Both are loaded with reliably great A-List talent, after the directors were given blank checks to work their magic. And both are incredibly long films, with the 50-minute edge going to Scorsese.

So let’s contemplate the worst-case scenario for Netflix at the 2020 Academy Awards: both The Irishman and Marriage Story come up empty. Where does that leave the streaming giant in the future?

“I have to do something substantial to get the attention of the final clubs”, Zuckerberg muses later in the aforementioned scene in The Social Network. Late in 2019, Netflix stepped in to save the shuttered Paris Theater in New York, and rumors have flown about the purchase of the famous Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, setting off a brand new conversation about the ethics of studios owning their own theaters. In the case of the Paris Theater, it saved one of the oldest and most renowned independent theaters in the city. Going forward, will the theater be used simply as a springboard for Netflix to tout its own original programming, or will it stick to the arthouse’s foundational mission statement of showing independent and prestigious films? It’s hard to imagine a bigger gambit than a Martin Scorsese project, but given Netflix’s impulse to throw projects at the wall and see what sticks, the odds are arguably in their favor to finally break through.

Many may not remember, but there was a similar controversy when Netflix first contended at the Emmy’s in 2013 when it debuted its first original programming lineup. Could streaming programs with entire seasons that debuted concurrently truly be considered television? Fast forward to 2018 and the streaming giant finally overtook HBO as the network/platform with the most Emmy nominations. That debate over the changing landscape of television has grown much quieter today. Only time will tell whether the film industry will fall victim to the same fate.

What is it that has driven Reed Hastings to pursue the ultimate prize in American film, and not be content merely with the domination of the television industry – not to mention his forever-ballooning net worth? We can all only hope that perhaps one day he’ll get his own Aaron Sorkin/David Fincher biopic and we’ll get a better insight into the inner workings of his decision making. For Mark Zuckerberg, it wasn’t enough to be a young, brilliant Harvard student. There was an instinctual drive to be known and loved by everyone around him. The only problem was that, in the world of The Social Network, that drive resulted in him alienating almost everyone that first loved him.


About the Writer: Ben Sears is a lifetime Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.

Help me in the fight against homelessness in Indianapolis by donating to the Wheeler Mission via my fundraising page for the 2020 Drumstick Dash.

Find more of Ben’s columns here.

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