Netflix knew. The executives smiled as they joined the shiny hordes walking into Hollywood’s Dolby Theater lobby on Oscar night, but their eyes held resignation. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” had 10 Academy Award nominations, but it was going to go home empty handed.
Oscar pundits and the awards season circuit wrote the story weeks ago: It’s too long. It got boring. It’s Scorsese’s greatest hits. It doesn’t mean anything. As the Oscar night wore on, lobby chatter shifted to what went wrong. That Oscar campaign was huge, the best money could buy and Netflix still couldn’t overcome… what, exactly?
I’d submit that there are real reasons “The Irishman” was blanked at the Oscars, but Netflix did nothing wrong. The awards campaign wasn’t the problem, and neither was Scorsese’s movie. It wasn’t even the Academy’s would-be anti-Netflix bias. It was friction.
The Netflix business model is based on manipulating the second law of motion: Netflix disrupted the entertainment industry with its ability to reduce friction between the audience and its content. There are thousands of ever-shifting choices, and a new one is suggested as soon as the old one ends.
Reducing friction lies at the heart of many businesses, from Airbnb to Uber to Facebook: Delight the user by removing the physical and emotional effort required to enjoy the product. Killing friction is what streaming is all about.
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However, friction is key to the movies — that’s drama, after all. And when it comes to some of our best movies, the kinds that are often nominated for Oscars, friction levels can be so high that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. It can be a punishing length, like “The Irishman,” or the emotional tension of watching a divorce in “Marriage Story,” or reading the subtitles of “Parasite.” (For many that seems like a Herculean effort, even at one inch high.)
And then there are the movie theaters, which are friction factories. Movies start at specific times, in specific places. You have to fight traffic to get there and then pay at the door, get gouged on refreshments, find a seat with a clear eyeline, and suffer through 30 minutes of commercials and trailers. It might be too hot, or too cold. It might smell like stale popcorn oil. And, worst of all, you might not even like what you came to see and then you’re stuck: There’s no forward button, or the option to nope out and try something else. Your only option is to leave, which will annoy all the strangers next to you while you feel ripped off and out of sorts for the rest of the day.
Exhibitors do their best to reduce the friction inherent to moviegoing, but it’s baked into their business model. That’s the weakness streaming attacks, with great success. However, when it comes to the kind of deeply felt movies that often win Oscars, all of that friction (except maybe the rancid popcorn) can be a feature, not a bug.
“The Irishman” certainly has its fans, and those who love it have the same refrain: It’s seeing Frank Sheeran at the end of his run as a small-time gangster and what it’s cost. Seeing him estranged in an anonymous nursing home lets you feel the full weight of his life, and the terrible decisions he made. It makes you see the familiar Scorsese actors a little differently, and may make you reconsider the Scorsese oeuvre. It’s deeply satisfying, and the work of a masterful filmmaker.
Of course, your mileage may vary. But even if you buy that emotional logic, we don’t see Sheeran’s final days until the end of a 3 1/2-hour movie. You can fast forward, of course, but that will undo the magic altogether. Ditto watching it 35 minutes here, an hour there; that fractures the cumulative effect. The only way to fully appreciate Sheeran’s journey is to stay with him, and that may require your discomfort.
That’s where theaters, and their traditional theatrical windows, triumph. If you pay to see “The Irishman” in a theater, you’ve already chosen to stick it out. Whatever happens on the screen, you’re available to it; it has your (nearly) undivided attention, and your heart and mind have nothing better to do than to experience what the filmmaker puts before you. When you’ve surrendered, there’s no friction.
Ironically, while Netflix’s no-friction model works brilliantly for the overwhelming majority of its content, it also puts a film like “The Irishman” at a real disadvantage. (Yes, Netflix made “The Irishman” available in a handful theaters for a month or so, but that piecemeal approach only served to remind audiences that they could easily wait it out.)
We surrender when there is no choice — and streaming means you always, always have choice. You could choose to ignore the choices that literally surround you, but that’s hard work. So is the attempt to remove those options altogether (not to mention the latent anxiety that can come with unplugging when you think others might believe you’re available). Watching “The Irishman” on Netflix means fighting that friction, along with the 210-minute runtime.
By the same token, “Parasite” would never have won Best Picture as a Netflix release. While Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece is more than an hour shorter than “The Irishman,” and has elements of comedy and horror that leaven a haunting tale of class struggle, it also requires unbroken commitment to its subtitles. That’s an effort Neon, and theaters, could support in a way that streaming could not.
None of this should be taken as a knock on Netflix, or as a hosanna for theaters and traditional distributors. (As Neon co-founder Tom Quinn told Eric Kohn last night, “Everybody needs to fucking settle down and figure out what’s best for each movie.”) Audiences, and the entertainment industry, have learned that there are many, many movies where big-screen friction just doesn’t pay off. It’s possible that “The Irishman” might have had greater impact with a shorter run time, but giving it a traditional theatrical run probably would not have been to Netflix’s financial benefit. And, giving more audiences the opportunity to see it on a big screen may not have yielded one more statue: Paramount took Scorsese’s three-hour “Wolf of Wall Street” wide in 2014, when it saw five Oscar nominations and zero awards.
While proud of its wins for “American Factory” and Laura Dern in “Marriage Story,” Netflix is undoubtedly happy to have the 2020 Oscars behind it. And ultimately, nominations alone may achieve what it needs most: subscribers. But as Netflix looks toward future Oscar hopes, its strategies may have to include a new algorithm: Can audiences fully appreciate the brilliance of the filmmaker’s work without the focus and isolation provided by a big-screened black box? Already, Netflix has realized that reducing friction has its limits: It announced February 6 that there is now a way to turn off its relentless auto-play trailer feature. With too little friction, it’s easy to slide right past.