Netflix releases its first theatrical film Beasts Of No Nation later this year, directed by True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba. Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, it tells the story of a West African child soldier ripped from his family to fight in a civil war:
For a media giant whose bread and butter is binge-watching fodder, it boasts a hearty pedigree of creative talent in Fukunaga and Elba. Twinned with a harrowing topic certain to tug on everyone’s moral conscience, Beasts is a step toward serious, gripping content. So when the movie was announced earlier this year as a same-day release on streaming and in theaters, a bunch of theater chains flat-out refused to screen it. It’s no surprise considering the major advantages home viewing (pyjamas, pets and homespun provisions) has compared to a trip to the multiplex (overpriced Milk Duds, nightclub floors and an implied dress code that precludes pyjama-wearing.)
However, a theatrical run often allows films to enter other areas of cultural recognition. Film festivals, where awards become a real possibility to stir up early buzz, are viable options to increase visibility for a project. In fact, Netflix has already gone above and beyond to secure Beasts slots at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. This element serves to attract filmmakers, actors and producers desirous of recognition from panels of peers at the world’s top film competitions. And there’s that little event called the Oscars. The film’s mid-October release ensures that it’ll stay fresh in voters minds, and members of the Academy won’t have to faff about with screeners. ‘Cause everyone’s got Netflix.
The issue ultimately boils down to which is the bigger win: getting the film in front of as wide an audience as possible (subscribers) or box office takings and critical prestige? This issue doesn’t really matter to Netflix now, as a simultaneous release eliminates some of the risks associated with either of those outcomes. The only loser here is the movie theater owner. If you want to keep abreast of the latest trends in exhibition you’ve got to play with the big boys, right? Well, that earlier tension seems to have also dissipated as Landmark Theaters has 19 cities lined up to screen the movie.
Beasts is something of a pioneer, venturing out into this brave new world… but it won’t be alone for long. Brad Pitt’s own Plan B Productions is in cahoots with Netflix for War Machine, that he’s set to star in (although a theatrical release isn’t confirmed - yet). In addition, the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel is scheduled for the same double drop in early 2016. Going one better, it’s readied as the first-ever movie to open on streaming and in IMAX theaters on the same day.
This is an experimental era for movie exhibition. And like all experiments there’s bound to be a few outliers. Perhaps Netflix honchos realise that their four-movie deal with comedian-turned-opportunist Adam Sandler should remain exclusive to streaming. ‘Cause if the last week has taught us anything, it’s that Sandler movies need to be kept far, far away from public movie houses.