When Netflix (NFLX 0.40%) popularized internet streaming video more than a decade ago, the company set off a chain of events that forever changed the way the world consumes entertainment. The streaming giant has been viewed as a contributing factor for everything from the rise in cord-cutting to the decline in movie theater attendance.
While consumers flocked to Netflix, the movie industry's old guard has circled the wagons and strongly resisted bringing the streaming pioneer into the fold. Netflix was barred from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and major theater chains have boycotted movies it has produced. Even after producing strong contenders, Netflix has never won a best picture Academy Award, which some chalk up to prevailing old-world attitudes among the voters.
That might be set to change as we close out 2019, as Netflix has released one of its most high-profile films to date. The movie could finally win the company the respect it craves, and it might just end Netflix's best-picture drought.
The Irishman is released
Legendary director Martin Scorsese is arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He's responsible for such renowned features as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street, among many others.
Nearly three years ago, Scorsese signed on with Netflix to create The Irishman, a film some believe is Scorsese's most ambitious -- and expensive -- undertaking to date. The film is based on Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicles the adventures of alleged mafia hitman Frank Sheeran. The movie used groundbreaking digital de-aging technology that allowed actors to portray the same character over a span of five decades.
Now that the film is complete, some are saying it's some of Scorsese's best work yet -- and it might get Netflix the best picture Oscar it has long desired.
Accolades are pouring in
This week, the gangster epic was named best film of 2019 by the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC). This is notable, as the NYFCC is regarded as a leading bellwether for Academy Award contention in February. Last year's best film winner, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, went on to receive 10 Oscar nods, winning three top awards: best director, best cinematography, and best foreign-language film.
The mob drama was also chosen as the best movie of the year by the National Board of Review (NBR) while being awarded best-adapted screenplay for writer Steven Zaillian and best director for Martin Scorsese. NBR is also honoring stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino with its recently introduced Icon Award, which recognizes "cinematic artists who have contributed meaningfully to the history, culture, and excellence of motion pictures."
Votes are cast by a select group of film enthusiasts, professionals, academics, filmmakers, and students, and the winner has historically gone on to earn multiple Oscar nominations. Other Netflix titles that made NBR's top 10 list included Dolemite is My Name and Marriage Story.
The Irishman was included in the American Film Institute's list of the top 10 motion pictures of the year, as was Marriage Story.
Taken together, each of these accolades won't mean much, but taken together, they show that Netflix may be able to achieve the pinnacle of filmmaking -- something that has eluded it in the past.
It seems to be a hit with viewers as well
The Irishman isn't just a critical success; viewers are raving about the movie as well. The film is Certified Fresh on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, which awarded it a 96% score, with an average audience rating of 86%. Metacritic labeled the movie a "must-see" with a score of 94, and IMDb gave it an 8.3/10.
While Netflix will occasionally release viewer numbers for its blockbuster movies, it's been mum so far about The Irishman. Ratings service Nielsen (NLSN) estimates that 17 million people tuned in to the film over the first five days, between Nov. 27 and Dec. 1. It's important to note that Netflix has disputed Nielsen's projections in the past, citing inherent limitations. Nielsen's count only captures television data in the U.S., and it doesn't account for international viewers or those who watch the movie on a mobile device or computer.
More than just bragging rights
While an Oscar might look nice on Netflix's mantle, the tech giant is using these high-profile movies as a way to attract customers. The company posted a rare subscriber decline in the U.S. during the second quarter, losing about 130,000 subscribers, though the numbers rebounded in Q3. Netflix blamed the phenomenon on a weak slate of original content and the timing of the release of its hit show Stranger Things. With more than 158 million subscribers worldwide, some investors fear the company's growth will inevitably slow.
High-profile projects like The Irishman and other Oscar bait including Marriage Story, The Laundromat, and The Two Popes, bring critical acclaim that Netflix hopes will lead to greater buzz and increasing subscriber numbers.
Of course, the Oscar would be nice on the mantle, too.