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What Martin Scorsese's Jump to Television Means for Cinema

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The Scorsese-verse is expanding. After the legendary filmmaker’s first ventures into the world of streaming, directing the pilot episode of HBO’s Vinyl (2016) and the Netflix original movie, The Irishman (2019), Martin Scorsese is returning to the small screen for a new adaptation of his epic historical film, Gangs of New York (2002). This effort revives a similar attempt back in 2013, which failed to materialize. Nevertheless, the Taxi Driver director is giving it another go twenty years after the release of Gangs with a new round of episodes scripted by television writer and playwright Brett Leonard.

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Deadline recently broke the news that Scorsese will direct the first two episodes and serve as an executive producer for the first season, mirroring David Fincher’s involvement almost exactly in season 1 of the Netflix original series House of Cards (2013). This announcement comes after Scorsese condemned Hollywood’s “repulsive” obsession with how much money theatrical films make in their opening weekends and overseas.

While theatrical filmmaking was once considered the ultimate vessel for visual storytelling, with each passing year, it looks increasingly like a sinking ship for authors, many of whom are jumping to TV and streaming services. This upcoming adaptation of Gangs of New York could be a turning point where more authors free themselves from runtime limitations and box office pressure of theatrical filmmaking, joining the ranks of Scorsese, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh, among others.


Theatrical Releases From Authors Have Taken a Beating in Recent Years

Recent years have seen auteur films repeatedly underperforming at the box office. While Wes Anderson, Jordan Peele, Tarantino, and Spielberg have managed to keep their heads above water, many recent auteur films haven’t washed their face; David O. Russell’s amsterdam (2022), Robert Eggers’ The Northman (2022), Christopher Nolan’s tenet (2020), Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (2017), PTA’s Inherent Vice (2014) and Licorice Pizza (2022), as well as Scorsese’s most recent theatrical release Silence (2016).

Since Scorsese’s upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, it will likely make a lot more than Silence. And even though Denis Villeneuve’s blade runner 2049 (2017) turned a modest profit, it was ultimately a financial disappointment. That might have something to do with the recent news that the original blade runner (1982) director Ridley Scott is adapting a sequel TV series for Amazon Studios titled Blade Runner 2099set fifty years after the events of Villeneuve’s film.

Related: 8 Movies That Have Gotten Martin Scorsese’s Seal of Approval

While many recent films failed to compete with the box office successes of comic book films, up-and-coming authors have been flocking to TV and streaming.

Jean-Marc Vallée followed up his theatrical films Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014) with shows like Big Little Lies (2017) and Sharp Objects (2018). Alex Garland followed up his theatrical films Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018) with the miniseries Devs (2020) for FX on Hulu. Derek Cianfrance released The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) theatrically before he made the HBO show I Know This Much Is True and the Amazon Prime film Sound of Metal in 2020. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) and No Time to Die (2021) were released theatrically. But Fukunaga also directed season one of True Detective (2014) for HBO and his miniseries maniac (2018) and movie Beasts of No Nation (2015) for Netflix.

Then there are the well-established authors with deep roots in theatrical films who have virtually abandoned the multiplex in recent years.

David Fincher produced two hit shows for Netflix. And mank (2020). Thus far, Steven Soderbergh has made two films for Netflix and four for HBO. Fincher hasn’t released a theatrical film since 2014 with Gone Girl, and Soderbergh hasn’t since 2013 with Side Effects; discounting Logan Lucky and Unsane (2018), which Soderbergh distributed as independently of the studio system as possible.

Gangs of New York Is Perfectly Suited For Longform Storytelling

Fans of Gangs of New York should not get their hopes up for Daniel Day-Lewis to reprise his unforgettable role as “Bill the Butcher” from the film. The three-time Oscar winner quit acting after a final performance in PTA’s 2017 film Phantom Thread. Add Leonardo DiCaprio to the list of actors that are unlikely to return. But maybe. Just maybe Scorsese will grace viewers with a cover of his cameo as a wealthy landowner.

Related: David Harbor Blasts Method Acting, Calls Daniel Day Lewis’s Approach ‘Nonsense’

While Brett Leonard’s scripts for the show are all based on the same source material as the Gangs film, the new series will feature a different cast of characters from Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York. With the film’s sprawling runtime of nearly three hours and Asbury’s source novel at 400 pages, Brett Leonard and Scorsese must have plenty to work with. During the first attempt to adapt Gangs for TV in 2013, Scorsese released this statement:

“This time and era of America’s history and heritage is rich with characters and stories that we could not fully explore in a two-hour film. A television series allows us the time and creative freedom to bring this colorful world to life.”

Scorsese’s desire to tell longform stories has become increasingly evident in the sprawling runtimes of his latest theatrical efforts. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is three hours long. Silencenearly three hours. The Irishman, three and a half. It’s as if Scorsese has grown too powerful to be contained by the two-hour standard that mere mortal filmmakers must obey. The filmmaker’s interest in longform stories is shared by David Fincher, whose work on House of Cards, as well as his ongoing work on mindhunter (2017), represents the biggest author jump to TV so far.

In 2013, during the height of AMC’s hit TV series breaking BadFincher told HitFix:

“If you’re working in the movie business, you’re thinking in terms of you have this two-hour form that requires a kind of ballistic narrative that doesn’t always allow for characterizations to be that complex, or that deep, or that layered, or that you can reveal slowly and be as faceted. And I felt for the past ten years that the best writing that was happening for actors was happening in television. And so I had been looking to do something that was longer form. I never said I was going to hold my breath until somebody offers me 26 hours. And when they did it was sort of shocking when you try to kind of wrap your mind around the number of different storylines that it’s going to take to fill 26 hours. It can be a particularly daunting experience.”

Who will be the next author to make the “daunting” jump to TV after Fincher and Scorsese? Will Quentin Tarantino make his teased 5-episode Bounty Law show after all? Will PTA make an Amazon Prime limited series set in 1970s San Fernando Valley? Will Joel Coen make a violent miniseries with his signature dry humor for HBO? Will Ethan Coen?

Maybe Wes Anderson will develop and direct the first couple of episodes of a stop-motion adventure show for FX on Hulu about an anthropomorphic rodent navigating the Dickensian sewers of London. How about a Netflix limited series from The Safdie Brothers, Escape From Rikers Island? Sam Mendes could probably adapt one of his films, like American Beauty (1999), into a compelling eight-hour miniseries. Just as long as he doesn’t do Revolutionary Road. Eight hours of Revolutionary Road would be excruciating.

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