The award season kicks into high gear this weekend courtesy of a slew of prominent releases. Yet amidst Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic ghost story-romance Crimson Peak, and Brie Larson’s imprisoned-mother drama Room, one film is looking to make its mark as both an Academy Award contender and—more importantly—as a pioneer charting a brave new course for cinematic exhibition.
That film is Beasts of No Nation, an adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel from director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective, Jane Eyre) about the experiences of a young boy who loses his family to his West African country’s civil war, and winds up as a child soldier in a ruthless commander’s rebel battalion. A rousing hit on the festival circuit, Fukunaga’s latest is also the first original theatrical release by Netflix, which will premiere the film on select screens today, the very same day it will become available on the giant’s streaming service. A risky proposition, it’s a dual-platform approach that functions as the biggest salvo so far in a burgeoning battle between the old world and the new.
The reasoning behind this strategy is simple: In an on-demand landscape increasingly cluttered with competitors (Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, etc.), Netflix believes that original content will be the key differentiator. While developing proprietary TV shows like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp factors into that plan, a film like Beasts goes a giant step further, since Netflix views it as a potential player come Oscar night. If true, that would put Netflix on a pedestal high above its rivals, and transform the service into perhaps the premier one-stop-shopping entertainment destination.
And the company is going all-in on this gamble, lining up a slew of similar exclusive productions that it will either debut simultaneously in theaters and online—such as the controversy-embroiled Adam Sandler comedy The Ridiculous Six slated for December, and the Brad Pitt Afghanistan-set satire War Machine scheduled for late next year—or only on its site (most promisingly, 2016’s original Pee-Wee Herman feature from Paul Reubens).
In theory, this sounds like a win-win for consumers, who will have multiple venues through which to access eagerly anticipated big-budget movies. But for Netflix, it remains unclear if this path leads to a brighter future, or a dead end. The company purchased the rights to Beasts in March for a staggering $12 million, assuming that it could recoup such a cost from a combination of ticket sales and new subscriptions. Yet that assumption was immediately complicated by the country’s four biggest theater chains (AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Carmike), which in May uniformly decided that they wouldn’t show Beasts.
With theaters coveting their exclusive windows to show first-run films before they hit home video platforms—a brief period of time that shrinks with every passing year—it’s no surprise that exhibitor conglomerates would balk at Netflix’s tactic, given that it will inevitably help render going out to the movies a superfluous (and experience-wise, superior) luxury.
Although the film will be shown in other theaters across 27 U.S. markets, and thus be eligible for consideration for the gold statuettes Netflix so hungrily covets, this boycott is a sizeable blow to the project’s box office prospects. Consequently, Beasts’ true value to Netflix won’t come from ticket sales but, in a best-case scenario, from added subscribers. Wednesday’s earnings report indicated that, while international growth is strong, Netflix’s domestic third-quarter performance was below expectations, both in terms of overall earnings (7 cents per share on $1.74 billion in revenue, versus the forecasted 8 cents per share on $1.75 billion in sales) and new customers (880,000, versus 1.15 million predicted). Those numbers, coupled with the announcement that rates for its most popular plans will rise $1 per month beginning next year, temporarily sparked a drastic 14 percent drop in share price.
The only way to improve such figures in this competitive video-to-your-every-device environment is by building subscribers through must-see content. In that regard, the future suggested by Beasts isn’t one in which films concurrently open on big and small screens alike. Rather, it’s one in which streaming services become so enormous and ubiquitous—not to mention cheaper and more convenient than a trip to your local multiplex—that they become the preferred, and thus dominant, means of cinematic consumption. Beasts further positions Netflix to lead that charge, especially if sterling reviews and award season buzz turn it into a word-of-mouth sensation.
That’s a likely proposition, given that Fukunaga’s film is one of the fall’s finest offerings, a disturbing Apocalypse Now-style exploration of wartime traumas of both a national and individual sort.
Detailing the ordeal of adolescent Agu (accomplished newcomer Abraham Atta) as he’s conscripted into bloody insurgent service by the wicked Commandant (Idris Elba, in a superlative, award-worthy turn), it’s a story of unbearable tension and heartbreaking tragedy. Fixated on the atrocities committed by the wayward Agu and, even more distressingly, the means by which this lost boy is warped into a killer by his monstrous new father figure, it’s an acute portrait of the psychology of evil, as well as an atmospheric descent into an abyss of depravity and degradation. Fukunaga’s follow-up to his work helming the entire first season of HBO’s True Detective captures terror and torment via up close and personal handheld snapshots as well as impressive panoramas of a countryside in ruin—culminating with a masterful single-take tracking shot that encapsulates its tale’s myriad internal and external horrors.
Beasts’ availability to Netflix’s 69.2 million global subscribers this Friday is, on the one hand, a heartening situation for a challenging gem that deserves a wide audience. And yet the fact that most will experience Fukunaga’s epic on a television set (or, worse, a tablet or phone), rather than on a towering screen, is difficult to view as an ideal scenario. As the biggest development in an accessibility versus appropriateness conflict that’s just getting started, the Beasts-Netflix marriage suggests that there’s much to gain from instantly having great new films at one’s fingertips, but also—in doing a disservice to the experience of watching grand, majestic movies as they were truly intended to be seen—something lost as well.