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Original Gangsters

With 'The Irishman,' Netflix makes its biggest power play to date—but will it be enough to keep the streaming pioneer on top?

Irishmania | Original Gangsters | Review: 'The Irishman' | The Mailmen

TALKIN' TO ME?: Robert DeNiro stars in the Netflix-produced Martin Scorsese film, 'The Irishman.'

When Netflix announced its 2011 pivot from DVD-by-mail distribution to web-based streaming, skepticism and a much-storied corporate stumble cost the company half of its marketplace value. YouTube was still quite young and relatively few consumers had the hardware to play internet movies directly on their television sets.

Plans to split the service into two discrete entities—the DVD-only "Qwikster" and the streaming-only Netflix—were bungled so badly that CEO Reed Hastings offered a public mea culpa, saying in a blog post that he had "messed up."

Netflix did ultimately bifurcate its service, though without the Qwikster moniker. Their by-mail movie service is now known as DVD.com. Video game consoles, Blu-ray players and cheap smart TVs adopted the platform. Later, ubiquitious high speed access vindicated the gamble.

Tech journalists and a public saturated with instantly accessible content have more recently wondered how Netflix will survive as older media firms catch up with the Los Gatos company, introducing streaming services of their own.

Initially, the answer seemed to be original content. Back in February of 2013 Netflix launched its first production—a remake of the British series House of Cards, which opened with Kevin Spacey addressing the camera, boasting of his weaslery like Laurence Olivier's Richard III. Spacey became not just Netflix's first star, but also its first persona non grata in the wake of the actor's sexual assault scandal.

Other tech companies were quick to jump in. Amazon and Hulu now host a number of critically acclaimed shows, which compete with Netflix's top-tier titles. Just this month, the Cupertino-based Apple launched its own service, TV+, rolling out a collection of direct-to-consumer, commercial-free original programming starring A-list talent such as Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carrel and Jason Momoa.

Fortunately for Netflix, it would seem the streaming trailblazer is still at least one step ahead of the competition. With a roster of 300 original series, movies, Portuguese programming, kid shows and much more, Netflix offers customers such a riot of possibilities that their name has become a verb—like "text" or "Uber." They've even been lampooned by The Simpsons: "Netflix: Overindulging writer's passions." As if that were a bad thing! (Despite this slap, Ted Sarandos, the head of programming at Netflix, guests on an episode in which Homer becomes addicted to streaming.)

With Oscar season in full swing, Netflix now operates like a major Hollywood studio. The company's latest original production is so huge, many in the industry are talking about it as if it were folly.

Netflix picked up Martin Scorsese's The Irishman after Paramount dropped it in favor of a tax loss—"turnaround' as it's called, a fate that befell everything from Boondock Saints to Forrest Gump. Reliable Forbes number-cruncher Scott Mendelson notes that given The Irishman's $140 million budget, it'll have to earn $400 million to be credited as a success, with a good deal of that money coming from overseas. It's hard to say whether it will be big in China. But what The Irishman has to say regarding corruption infiltrating a workers' movement wouldn't be completely irrelevant there.

Netflix's strategy of limited release for The Irishman has come under complaint by John Fithian, the president of the National Organization of Theater Owners. Fithian told the New York Times that it was "a disgrace" for Netflix to choose a too-small theatrical release of The Irishman, with only 250 screens nationwide.

Bay Area film lovers complained last year about having to drive 50 miles to see the Netflix release Roma on the silver screen.

It would be better to have a first encounter with The Irishman alone in the dark. There are details, shadings, insinuations, glances between men, items you wouldn't want to miss when the cat jumps in your lap or Doordash rings the bell.

If the theatrical release does qualify it for an Oscar or two—it certainly deserves it—it might increase the draw. Netflix could use the prestige as well as the publicity; it has its own rocky times ahead as we all approach the summit of peak television.

In addition to Apple's new original content, the end of 2019 also brings us news of Disney+ and HBO Max. Content licensing is expensive, and the old reliables are going to go up in price. There's a certain sort of streaming viewer who'd be satisfied if all he ever got was unlimited access to Seinfeld and Friends.