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Smells Like ‘10s Spirit: ‘The Irishman’ is Cinema’s Past, Present and Feared Future

“Smells Like ’10s Spirit” takes a look at the decade in movies through the lens of success stories only made possible by unique trends that emerged. This series explores ten films – one from each year of the 2010s – and a single social, economic or cultural factor that can explain why it made an impact or lingers in the collective memory. Each piece examines a single film that tells the larger story of the tectonic forces reshaping the entertainment landscape as we know it. In this final edition: The Irishman, written for the screen by Steve Zaillian and directed by Martin Scorsese.

“I estimate the final disappearance of cinemas as taking place around the year 2020,” French director Jean-Pierre Melville mused in 1970, “so in fifty years time there will be nothing but television.” Well, the future for him is the present for us. How’d his prediction fare?

As the coronavirus rages and theatrical exhibition can make only the most tentative steps towards reopening, it’s tempting to see his claim as vindicated. The movies, and theaters, are certainly resilient – although the tussle between studios and exhibitors of Trolls World Tour, of all things, could potentially make for a watershed moment. Yet to deny there’s been a massive, ongoing and unfinished shift in both where movies are consumed and how the method of viewing affects their content is willful blindness.

There’s no better way to observe the sea change in the film industry over the 2010s than through one man, one who cites Melville as a major influence on his latest project: Martin Scorsese. He began the decade chasing the great cash cow that was 3-D. (I’m omitting Shutter Island, great as it is, from this narrative because Paramount originally slated the film for release in 2009.) When his family-friendly Hugo hit screens in 2011, the technology looked like a saving grace for flailing theatrical attendance, not the fad we now recognize it to be. Scorsese proved that he could still make a hit with 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which triumphed with audiences and critics alike, though it still did not give him carte blanche to make a long gestating passion project.

To get 2016’s Silence funded, Scorsese made a trip to Cannes to personally pitch the film to investors – a first in his storied career. “The reality of the independent world is that when you want to do a picture like Silence you do stuff you normally wouldn’t do,” longtime Scorsese producer Irwin Winkler told Deadline, “like being here in Cannes on a boat.” He made the film for a relative bargain, $46.5 million, but a tepid rollout from Paramount resulted in Silence barely grossing half its budget worldwide.

Nonetheless, Scorsese’s clout and veneration in the industry kept the faint hope alive for his follow-up, The Irishman. As the visual effects budget necessary to convincingly de-age his septuagenarian stars swelled the overall price tag into nine-figure territory, both Paramount and STX balked. Netflix, which needed not the $400 million return that a traditional studio required from The Irishman but rather “an amorphous, unknown mix of subscriber views, publicity and revenue from admissions,” jumped at the opportunity. Thanks to the deep pockets of the streaming giant, the project moved forward – and became the game-changer the company had sought for years.

For cinephiles and theatrical enthusiasts like myself, Scorsese acceding to the new reality of the industry did not feel like a nail in the coffin for big-screen moviemaking, though it served as a highly symbolic blow at the time. “We needed to make an expensive picture,” Scorsese told Variety. “The movie business is changing hour by hour — not necessarily for the better — and many of the places we would have gone to for funding in the past were no longer viable. Then we started talking to Netflix. We agreed on everything, most importantly that we all wanted to make the same movie. So we went forward.” If the man with more Best Director nominations than any living filmmaker could not get a studio greenlight for an adult drama, who could?

Well, we learned in 2019 the unfortunate truth about what it took to get flawed, thorny studies of masculinity on screen and who could do it. The answer? Todd Phillips with Joker, an Impossible Burger of Scorsese’s aesthetics: a familiar initial texture but ultimately no meat and very little substance at all. To get the kind of character study of tortured men that Scorsese and the New Hollywood cohort popularized in the ‘70s, the story now had to be wedded to intellectual property like DC Comics’ Joker to receive the greenlight for anything more than a shoestring budget.

“Because the studios have discovered how to take the risk out of moviemaking, they don’t want to make movies that they can’t protect themselves on.” Though that quote sounds like it could be ripped out of this week’s trades, that was actually Pauline Kael in 1980, lamenting the sorry state of cinema under its new corporate hegemony. There’s something comforting in the knowledge that loving movies has, to large extent, always entailed some level of fretting about their fragile viability in the future. But this present moment of change feels bigger and more daunting than previous ones; none other than pioneering producer of the 2010s, Jason Blum, told The New York Times as much last year. “This is the biggest shift in the content business in the history of Hollywood,” he proclaimed. “I think it’s as big as the advent of television.”

The streaming era, spearheaded by Netflix, poses a unique threat to movies as we know them today. Streamers will not extinguish cinema; as Blum also wisely noted in his interview, “The two- to three-hour storytelling format has existed since the beginning of time […] If a story is two hours and has a beginning, middle, and end, I can’t see how that becomes obsolete.” But the streaming era has quietly warped audience expectations and behaviors to such a great extent that the storytelling and craftsmanship of film itself has had to follow suit. And there’s reason, too, to believe that this shift in product might resemble the scale of the transition from silent film to talkies. There’s no turning back. To quote The Irishman‘s Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), “it’s what it is.”

Why is this time different? It’s worth taking a step back and analyzing how Netflix upended the entertainment industry over the 2010s.

Unlike the economics of a traditional movie studio, which operates trying to squeeze every cent of profit out of each release, Netflix operates by a different model. They’re in the “subscriber happiness business,” to borrow a term from media analyst Rich Greenfield. Because their customers pay a fixed price per month in the form of a subscription fee, the company’s calculations are more concerned with the marginal utility of each piece of content they put on their platform to make their existing subscribers happy and convince the few remaining holdouts to get on board. As Netflix deepens its investment in original content, their goal is to make themselves indispensable and unmissable. “Netflix will be what many used to just consider ‘TV’ overall,” wrote Matthew Ball on Redef.

Their particular strengths as a producer of content in the streaming space stem largely from the advantage they built up being a marketplace for content in the early days of digital video. Studios were slow to recognize the potential for online streaming to become the primary form of engagement with their products as they continued to ride high on the profits from the DVD and physical media boom. In the early years of the 2010s, Netflix gained a competitive advantage in the space by licensing the studio’s content at a cheaper price and essentially managed to “build a business atop the creative successes of its eventual competitors,” to quote Ball once more. Only time will tell if any of the new rivals – Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO MAX, Peacock – can do it best, but Netflix will hold a tremendous leg up on the competition simply by doing it first. If anything, they are consolidating their current position by forcing competitors like Walmart, which recently offloaded streaming platform Vudu to Fandango, out of the business.

Though the streaming behemoth’s dominance seems inevitable now that we’re living it, many prominent industry leaders scoffed at the possibility of Netflix’s ascent as it rose. “It’s a little bit like, is the Albanian army going to take over the world?” Time Warner’s CEO Jeff Bewkes scoffed in 2010. “I don’t think so.” As we all know, he and the rest of the entertainment industry are now struggling to catch up with Netflix’s marvel of vertical integration that began in 2013 with original TV show House of Cards, which famously leveraged their troves of user data to formulate the ideal show for their audience. Because they don’t have to compete with the limitations of linear TV’s finite number of primetime spots, Netflix’s volume has overwhelmed the market and left competitors reeling. “Sleep is my greatest enemy,” quipped their official Twitter handle in 2017.

(As for Bewkes? Well, he left Time Warner when their merger with AT&T completed – and within a year, his company’s movie studio signed a deal with Cinelytic to leverage AI to guide their executives at the greenlight stage.)

Netflix’s foray into feature films got off to a bit of a dicey start. Their first out of the gate, 2015’s Beasts of No Nation, made a play for prestige and awards … only to notoriously receive a complete cold shoulder from Oscars voters. Nonetheless, they remained an active buyer at film festivals and managed to win over a number of big-screen auteurs (Bong Joon-ho, Noah Baumbach, Duncan Jones, Paul Greengrass, to name just a few among the impressive roster) to let the company finance their latest projects. The film division at Netflix had a slightly different objective than television since, according to internal data, movies only make up about a third of viewership on the platform. Film is somewhat of a loss leader for Netflix, a way for them to purchase goodwill from customers as well as industry rivals and bring them closer into the fold.

The effects of Netflix becoming a major player in the film world has already resulted in massive disruptions and shifts within both the craft and business. While 2019 matched the decade-high point in theatrical revenue, the dollars masked a scarier statistic: per capita admissions to movie theaters tied a decade-low, per the Motion Picture Association. For the already-struggling independent film market, the prospects look grimmer than ever; the specialty market saw ticket sales decline 45% in 2019. Flush with cash from external sources, streamers like Netflix are able to outbid competitors like Searchlight or Sony Classics, who are dependent on the state of cinema to get eyeballs on their productions and acquisitions.

With Trump’s DOJ clearing the way for the return of block booking with the termination of the Paramount Decrees, Netflix and other massive, established companies may even further cutoff the opportunity for upstarts like A24 or Neon to break through in theaters. (A scary thought for anyone who realizes how crucial theaters were to launching Parasite in 2019.) Netflix can cut off their supply by snapping up high-profile projects early as well as alter their demand by training audiences to look for high-quality adult fare on their own platform. It’s a blunt-force instrument that has tangibly moved the demand curve for movies and altered customer preferences – pre-COVID, 55% of moviegoers said they’d rather watch a drama at home.

Lest you think this is just an isolated data point, take a look at the Netflix effect on comedy, a genre that remains my favorite to experience with a crowd full of strangers in a theater. After Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’s second film was Adam Sandler vehicle The Ridiculous 6. The company signed him to a four-picture deal in 2014 shortly after his theatrical outing Blended flopped and he topped Forbes’ most overpaid actors list. Still, his films did exceptional numbers on Netflix’s streaming platform both domestically and globally. The company recognized an opportunity to bring their customers Sandler’s hijinks as a value-add without the pressure of justifying the investment on each film.

Five years later, 53% of moviegoers say they’d rather watch a comedy at home on streaming as opposed to going to the theater for it. Maybe Netflix simply recognized an existing trend, maybe they accelerated it, maybe they directly caused it – or perhaps some combination of them all. But streaming’s ability to cut into once-popular theatrical genres has allowed them to train and condition their audiences to reflexively seek this content on their own platforms rather than at the multiplex.

53% of moviegoers say they’d rather watch a comedy at home on streaming as opposed to going to the theater for it. Maybe Netflix simply recognized an existing trend, maybe they accelerated it, maybe they directly caused it – or perhaps some combination of them all.

There’s evidence, though, that Netflix still needs some theatrical ecosystem to survive at least for the immediate future. Filmmakers like Scorsese who grew up at the movie theater and spent their entire career tailoring stories for the big screen demand it, for one. (Much of the pre-release narrative around The Irishman dealt with Netflix’s ongoing and ultimately futile negotiations with the three big exhibition chains to secure a wide release.) The ability to offer the wide scale of reach on their platform is a tremendous advantage for filmmakers who just want their work to be made and seen; it’s unlikely 17.1 million people would have watched The Irishman in its first five days on Netflix would have gone to see it in a theater. Netflix simply accommodates the occasional vanity theatrical release based on a director’s influence.

But it’s not just filmmakers – audiences want it, too. “Of those who were always or usually aware of movies’ in-theatre releases,” a report from the National Organization of Theater Owners (NATO) found, “62% reported they were more likely to stream a movie if they knew it was released in a movie theatre.” Theatrical exhibition may still survive as a glorified PR launch for the streaming release as Netflix and other online giants struggle to disassociate their releases from a lingering analog-era “straight to video” stigma. (The company has not helped matters by providing studios the chance to offload underwhelming titles like The Cloverfield Paradox onto the platform – a pattern that upstarts like HBO MAX may be copying with Melissa McCarthy vehicle Superintelligence, a shift they planned even prior to the pandemic.) The primary power of the movie theaters now is to bestow prestige, not profits.

As if you need any further evidence that movie theaters are becoming little more than a convenient boondoggle in the streaming era, take a look at the most high-profile theater booked for The Irishman in 2019: New York City’s Belasco Theater, which normally hosts Broadway shows. Netflix decked out the lobby with pseudo-phone booths and fake broadsheets, turning the movie into a true event.

As cool as the activation seems, it does portend a possible future for the exhibition of adult dramas in the near term as exhibitors flail: more expensive, more clustered in cultural metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, less accessible to the average person. Film becomes a special outing, not a standard event, in this environment. It could become as exclusive and elitist as Broadway is in the current entertainment landscape. Or worse: it could become boxing, which a century ago occupied a central role in the American consciousness. “Now it exists on the fringes of society,” observed Chuck Klosterman in his provocative book But What If We’re Wrong? “It’s not really a sport anymore. It’s a mildly perverse masculine novelty.”

Netflix has not killed the movies, to be clear, but it has reset expectations of them. The twice-aforementioned survey of moviegoing preferences found that 34% of people are going to the movies more, though it’s only a net gain of +7% when factoring in that 27% are going less. 60% of people, on the other hand, say they’re now streaming more. By shifting the supply of prestige to streaming in taking The Irishman to Netflix, Scorsese pushed the demand curve and perpetuated a vicious cycle.

The only genres that people overwhelmingly see in theaters are action/adventure, superheroes or comic book movies. “People don’t go to ‘the’ movies,” Sony chief Tom Rothman postulated, “they go to ‘a’ movie” – specifically, event movies. These giant spectacles are not new; Scorsese himself even acknowledged that when he was coming of age, a new Hitchcock release counted as an event picture in its own way. But what’s different now is that Netflix and streaming have made it so there is room for only these movies in theaters. “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing,” Scorsese wrote in that same op-ed, “of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” Audiences have largely decided everything else can wait until streaming, and that has massive implications for the future of filmmaking.

Part of this stems from the perceived value of Netflix and other streaming services. Because of the fixed low price, customers are willing to accept slightly less quality in exchange for more quantity – not to mention the ease of accessibility. 58% of moviegoers say that the price of going to a movie is too expensive, while 81% say their streaming subscription services are priced “just right” or “a bargain.” Movies have to be exceptional to justify a trip out of the house, while staying into stream merely requires that a piece of content be, well, enjoyable enough.

[more-on-follow align=left]58% of moviegoers say that the price of going to a movie is too expensive, while 81% say their streaming subscription services are priced “just right” or “a bargain.” Movies have to be exceptional to justify a trip out of the house.

The where of moviewatching will inevitably spill over into the what and how. Don’t get distracted by the likes of Cuarón and Scorsese only to miss the larger, structural changes happening in consumer preferences. We have been lucky that, thus far, that Netflix’s business overlaps with the interest of cinephiles in getting work by established masters funded and widely distributed. The demands of stars will keep the current hierarchy of prestige afloat for a while, too; John Boyega recently exclaimed “I ain’t getting no Disney Plus!” when asked about his future in the Star Wars universe. But what happens when everyone’s interests no longer neatly align? What happens when Netflix can afford to ignore key stakeholders?

Look at Amazon Studios, which charged into the market funding ambitious (and not strictly commercial) projects by luminaries like Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes and Nicolas Winding Refn, only to pivot strategies and retreat into lowest common denominator fare under new head Jennifer Salke. The great hopes of cinema that rose up to replace the studio-funded independent outfits that shuttered after 2008’s Great Recession all sputtered out. We all get our hopes every few years when someone looks like they might have the silver bullet – in just the past decade, contenders include Megan Ellison and Annapurna, Broad Green Pictures and Amazon Studios. Only Netflix remains as a moviemaking Medici, and don’t even count on that to continue forever. Recent shifts in their marketing department suggest the company is shifting away their marketing attention towards selling the overall platform.

And even when a film like The Irishman does manage to get made, it’s going to be increasingly on the terms of the streamer. Artistic freedom is the lure, and by all accounts, they are following through on that promise. But once a generational change of the guard occurs and the dominant class of filmmakers sees theatrical exhibition as a privilege rather than a given, aesthetics and storytelling will shift. Movies will have to acknowledge the reality that people will primarily watch them at home, on a smaller screen, likely with another device in their hands (unless that’s what they are watching on). “There are moments when you want to do a cool shot like [Lawrence of Arabia],” said director Paul Feig of the framing choices he’s already making. “But you go, ‘When people end up watching this on their phone, they’re not going to see anything.'” Widescreen cinema, one of film’s chief responses to fend off the rise of television in the mid-20th century, is now one of the first things on the chopping block in the streaming era.

Scorsese himself even admitted that having Netflix on board had an effect on how he made The Irishman. How could it not? “Because of the Netflix situation,” he told The Guardian, “we were able to experiment more – narrative style, visual style, length. In a sense, the revolution is such that we don’t know where these films are being seen.” The Irishman is the here and now of 2010s cinema, both its purest encapsulation and the cherry on top of a melting sundae. It’s the kind of movie they don’t make anymore as well as the kind of movie that could only be made at this very moment. It’s simultaneously a living history of the past half-century and decade of moviemaking as well as a canary in the coal mine for the future of the craft. Scorsese’s masterwork is past, present and future all at once.

Scorsese will likely make many more films —his next project, the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Killers of the Flower Moon, is being funded by Apple for the reported sum of $200MM— but The Irishman feels like the director’s cinematic Last Lecture. It’s a reflection on morality and mortality within the gangster/crime genre that both made Scorsese’s name and provided him a stage to interrogate and investigate the masculine ethos. The sprawling, decade-spanning canvas of The Irishman offers him the chance to get more sober and somber than ever about the toll of crime that often takes place outside the frame in his filmography. (“It sort of bleeds out,” aptly described Al Pacino to GQ.) While it purveys territory similar to Mean Streets or GoodFellas, the structure and spirit are something different entirely.

He frames the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) through his solitary days in declining health at a nursing home. Alone and abandoned by everyone he once loved, Sheeran has few other recourses than the solace of his own memory (self-aggrandizing as it might be). The Irishman toggles back and forth between multiple timelines, all of which feature Sheeran and his contemporaries played continuously by the same actors thanks to the magic of CGI de-aging technology. These advances have aided storytelling since 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but never has it taken on such a profound thematic dimension as well.

In The Irishman, time as we know and recognize it gets warped and suspended through both the technology and the storytelling. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s green light, but for the cinema, it harkens us forward by paradoxically bearing us ceaselessly back into the past. Time in Scorsese’s film is flattened, stretched, reordered and altogether muddled – not unlike the effect of streaming itself.

This strange, disorienting sensation in The Irishman resembles less the linear experience of watching a traditional movie or television series and more what New York Times television critic James Poniewozik dubs “The Suck” of streaming. This overwhelming sensation, in his words, creates a “narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours.” Scorsese invites us not just to follow Frank Sheeran on screen but to let his life envelop us altogether.

It’s almost as if the filmmaker has refashioned his role to match the omnipotent algorithm as described by Amanda Hess, who wrote in her piece “The End of Endings” that our technology-powered overlords have obliterated any sense of a timeline as we know it. “[Posts] from hours and days before mysteriously resurface to haunt the present,” she wrote, declaring that we now live in a world where time seems to move both inexorably forward and yet not at all. (And if you think this is scary now, just wait until an upcoming decade in which James Dean will likely be only the first of many deceased celebrities resurrected with the magic of technology – bringing new relevancy to William Faulkner’s fabled quote, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”)

Scorsese resisted the idea of ever turning The Irishman into a miniseries – “the point of this picture is the accumulation of detail,” he told Entertainment Weekly. But he didn’t have to take the form of television to harness its essence over the course of his 210-minute opus. “I really think we have the chance to radically change the depth of character connectivity,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos declared in 2013. “I mean, a meaningful shift. It’s going to further blur the line between television and movies.” By all accounts, Netflix and the streaming world have succeeded in this regard.

Look at adaptations of Gillian Flynn’s work over the decade, for instance: Gone Girl was a global box office phenomenon in 2014, yet by 2018, her novel Sharp Objects got the HBO mini-series treatment. The rise of the limited or event series in the 2010s speaks not necessarily to the rise of episodic storytelling but the enduring strength of longform narrative. It’s tempting to look at the trend in viewing habits and assume people want less movies, fewer platforms, quicker videos and tighter stories. But when we pull back the curtain and look at what’s actually striking a nerve, it’s clear audiences want more content, greater investment, expanded worlds and longer stories. The technology is now finally able to meet the moment.

If the line is blurred now, it’s going to be totally eradicated in the decade to come. Marvel’s big-screen Cinematic Universe – itself essentially an episodic narrative stretched out over 11 years – will soon encompass events and stories told through series on Disney Plus. It’s a stunning concession by one of the few reliable generators of box office to our new reality. What will we even call this cross-platform, transmedia hybrid? The rate of change in the industry is so rapid that we have yet to expand our vocabulary to describe these new forms of entertainment.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for filmmakers to develop and amplify their voices, though the collateral damage may devalue long-established methods of consumption. At present, research suggests that streaming video does not serve as a replacement for theatrical moviegoing. The most frequent moviegoers are also the most connected moviegoers (yes, even including those aged 18-24), and they are not seeing movies any less because they have more devices and avenues that allow them to stream. “People who stream movies also really love to go to the movies,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian opined, “Streaming and movie-going aren’t adversarial, they are in fact additive and complementary.” Platform agnosticism is the new normal; film and filmmakers will have no choice but to adjust to this reality.

“Don’t shut the door all the way. I don’t like that,” requests Frank Sheeran to an attending priest in his final lines of The Irishman. “Leave it open a little bit.” He’s infirmed and hooked up to an IV, clearly nearing his demise. The image of him breathing slowly, uncertainly and timidly – but still holding on – feels like a fitting end not just to this singular film but to a decade at large. The 2010s have brought moviemaking as we have long regarded it to a state of critical condition, yet they cling to life with stubborn persistence. They aren’t ready to go dark forever. They keep the door open for light, for change, for the hope that there’s something beyond that will save us.

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.

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