Early reactions have hailed it as a masterpiece, the best thing Scorsese has done in years.
With so much hand-wringing over the years about whether or not Netflix’s original films are serious enough for awards and other serious consideration, this week’s The Irishman will be hard for critics to dismiss or ignore. That’s because it comes from director Martin Scorsese and stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and a host of others.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, who after serving in WWII connects with Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), who is able to put Sheeran’s unique skills to use furthering his union-building ambitions. Serving Hoffa for years, Sheeran sees and is involved with a number of illegal, unethical and other activities, all of which he reflects on as an old man following Hoffa’s mysterious disappearance.
The movie, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” has been in development for over a decade, languishing largely because of the significant budget that was attached. Now Netflix is releasing it as the capstone of its recent efforts to attract the biggest of big name filmmakers. The campaign run by the company has been understandably heavy on the weight of the cast involved, selling a movie that seemed to take forever to finally see the light of day.
The first and only poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out in September and shows all three main characters looking very serious. There’s no explanatory copy here to offer insights into the story, the feeling apparently being that the promise of these three actors reuniting with each other and Scorsese being sales pitch enough for the audience to handle.
Netflix finally released the much-anticipated first trailer (5.6 million views on YouTube) in late July. The spot uses the framing device of Frank’s introductory phone call with Hoffa – one facilitated by Bufalino – to show just what kind of work Frank does and how he’s come to Hoffa’s attention. That all builds to a dramatic conclusion as the high stakes of the world Hoffa operates in are shown, but what the trailer is truly intent on showing are the performances of the lead actors.
The second trailer (3.2 million views on YouTube), released in September, starts off by showing how Frank gets into the world of corruption and crime, eventually coming to Hoffa’s attention. Hoffa needs help in his fight against both governmental and business forces, both of whom want to make unions less powerful. That help involves lots of violence, as the rest of the trailer makes clear.
Online and Social
As usual for Netflix’s original features there wasn’t a standalone website, but it was a big enough deal to warrant the company creating a specific Twitter profile. In addition to that it received plenty of promotion on Netflix’s brand profiles.
Advertising and Publicity
The first teaser – the very first bit of marketing done by Netflix for the film – debuted as a TV spot during the February broadcast of the Oscars ceremony and was notable for including a call out to see the movie in theaters later in the year.
Musician Robbie Robertson announced in late July he was creating a new album partially inspired by the upcoming movie, with a duet between Robertson and Van Morrison that shares its name with the memoir the movie is based on.
While it missed other festivals, it was announced in late July that the movie would have its world premiere screening at this year’s New York Film Festival. It’s international premiere was later scheduled for the closing night of the London Film Festival. A “centerpiece” screening at the Rome Film Festival was announced in September. It also screened at The Hamptons Film Festival and will open the Cairo Film Festival in November.
After much back and forth, Netflix was unable to come to an agreement with major chains for the wide theatrical release it and Scorsese wanted, opting instead for a deal with independent theaters that didn’t have a problem with the three week window before it was available for streaming.
Netflix released photos of De Niro as Frank through the years at the same time a new trailer dropped in late September.
The New York Film Festival screening brought with it enormous amounts of positive buzz from critics and others in attendance. Much of that was generated by the press conference following the movie that included comments on the filmmaking process by Scorsese, Pacino, De Niro, Pesci and others.
Earlier this month Netflix announced it would screen the movie for two weeks at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, a location the company has been in discussions to purchase, and for a month at New York City’s Belasco Theater.
A clip released by Netflix last week shows Hoffa and Sheeran meeting a rather rude associate in Florida. The story elements are secondary, though, to just offering a glimpse of Pacino and De Niro.
The New York City premiere of the film featured a red carpet recreating a city sidewalk, complete with parked sedan and a newspaper stand with papers featuring “Where’s Hoffa?” headlines.
Media and Press
While there had been plenty of conversation about the movie and its production, a very big news beat dropped when it was announced Paramount had dropped out and it was picked up by Netflix, which agreed to finance it. Part of that decision may have been a budget that was predicted at the time to be around $125 million – already a massive amount for a crime drama – but which was reported later to be closer to $200 million given all the de-aging special effects work necessary.
De Niro spoke later about how supportive Netflix was during production, saying the company was providing the movie to “do it right.” The company kept people guessing as to what it had in mind regarding a potential theatrical release. During Cannes 2018, STX head David Kosse talked about the deals surrounding the movie and the various compromises and adjustments that needed to be made.
While appearing at the Marrakech Film Festival last year, De Niro mentioned that the movie would receive the same kind of limited theatrical release as other Netflix original films. At the same festival Scorsese talked about how Netflix was taking risks other producers weren’t as well as making comments on other industry issues.
Both Scorsese and De Niro were scheduled for a conversation about their long-lived working relationship during the Tribeca Talks series of conversations, panels and interviews at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was founded by De Niro.
In the wake of Netflix’s unsuccessful bid to secure a Best Picture Oscar win for Roma, reports emerged it would make an even stronger push for this movie, including a rumored longer theatrical run to placate Scorsese as well as other MPAA member companies. That push would not include a screening at Cannes 2019, though, as Netflix confirmed in mid-March it would not have any films at the festival.
De Niro spoke about the movie and how the fact he would be made younger through the magic of digital technology impacted his performance.
Much of the press attention given to the star and director involved asking them to comment on the merits of theatrical versus streaming releases, with the movie only coming up as a secondary subject. Even the film’s producer weighed in, saying the humor is something audiences will want to experience in a crowd as opposed to home on their own. Both Scorsese and De Niro continued talking about the process of working together, working with Netflix and more during the Tribeca Film Festival. As with many filmmakers before him, Scorsese identified the creative freedom offered by Netflix as a reason he decided to take the project there.
There were, of course, stories like this about how the movie offered the latest example of Netflix finding itself at loggerheads with theater chains as the producer sought substantial release for its films while those chains didn’t want to support the streaming competitor. These conversations took on a new weight with Scorsese pushing for as many screens as possible while the chains continued to insist on three month exclusivity before it was available for Netflix customers.
Around the same time a deal was finally reached with indie theaters, news circulated the movie was clocking in around three-and-a-half hours. That raised some people’s eyebrows, but that was mostly among those who wanted to find some problem to latch on to since it’s not that much longer than Avengers: Endgame and certainly more Scorsese is almost never a bad thing.
The NYFF premiere included a press conference that generated a good amount of word of mouth and had Scorsese commenting more on the artistic freedom given him by Netflix. Around that same time there were stories about creating a story that shifted between eras and a feature on the reunion of De Niro and Pacino along with how they, with Scorsese, had been long searching for material that would be worthy of their teaming up.
An interview with Scorsese allowed him to talk more about how Netflix came through with the financing when no one else would and lots more. De Niro shared how he spent a lot of time convincing Pesci to come out of retirement, enticing him with the prospect of this being the last time they might have the chance to work together.
A feature profile of both De Niro and Pacino covered the actors’ long personal friendship that has only occasionally resulted in on-screen pairings and how they still feel motivated to best their own previous work even after decades in the industry.
The cast and Scorsese all spoke about working together, how friendly an environment Netflix created and more at the premiere.
It’s not surprising that Netflix would make a huge deal about being the sole distributor (except for the small theatrical run) for a new movie from Martin Scorsese, not to mention one that features a Murderer’s Row cast like this does. That campaign has sold a movie that seems pulled straight from the mid-90s in tone and subject matter, in the best possible way.
What *is* a bit surprising is that the marketing itself hasn’t overly focused on the same technical aspects of production that have been so heavily covered in the press. It’s been all about the actual story and characters, especially the performances from the leads, instead of overdoing it in showing the digital deaging that has taken place.
The movie currently has a 99 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been almost universally praised by critics. Since the movie isn’t receiving a major theatrical release, it will be hard to gauge how audiences react unless Netflix uses this as one of the infrequent times it reports out vague viewership numbers.
Until then, it’s been a solid campaign that’s received a lot of attention but now has to convince ordinary subscribers to give it a chance.
Picking Up the Spare
More from Robbie Robertson about his music for the movie here.
Scorsese went into some detail about the process of getting the film ready for production in this interview.
The “final” trailer released by Netflix in advance of its streaming debut includes some of the movie’s positive reviews while telling a more complete story of Sheeran’s arc and the repercussions of his illegal activities.
There have been a metric ton of featurettes released by Netflix following the film hitting theaters and then on streaming.
How the impressive cast and crew worked behind the scenes.
How the sound designers created the simple audio for the dramatic story.
How the costume designers created looks for all the characters that evolved over the decades.
How the set designers created settings that were ordinary but impactful.
How the movie’s editor paced the story to showcase the performances.
How the movie’s director of photography captured those performances.
The movie’s screenwriter on crafting a decade-spanning story.
There were also several spotlights on the cast, including Anna Paquin, Pacino, De Niro, Cannavale, Pesci, Stephen Graham, Ray Ramano and Jesse Plemons. The cast also shared their thoughts on Scorsese’s best films while another focused on the director himself.
Scorsese was the feature of another feature profile about his innovative career.