Netflix’s first foray into movie-making will be tested this Sunday when “Beasts of No Nation,” its first narrative film, screens at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Netflix paid a hefty $12 million to acquire the film, which stars Idris Elba as a blood-soaked African warlord.
This screening, and the small 29-theater release that will follow it, are noteworthy because they allow “Beasts of No Nation” to qualify for the Academy Awards – something that would not be possible with just an online release.
What’s less clear is whether Netflix actually has a long-term commitment to the idea of a movie theater, or whether it’s simply playing by the Academy’s rules to snag a few Oscar nominations.
Netflix, for its part, has never said it wants to destroy the theater system.
“I feel like it’s incumbent on us to make and distribute movies that are so good that theater owners will want to book them,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandostold Variety. There’s deference in that statement, a push to portray Netflix as slighted by theater giants like Regal,who have so far refused to carry“Beasts of No Nation.”
But of course, these theater companies see Netflix as an existential threat to their business model. That’s because, by all indications, Netflix simply doesn’t care all that much about them.”There’s no theatrical revenue expectation in our business model on any movie,”Sarandos went on to explain to Variety.
So if Netflix doesn’t care about revenue from theatrical releases, what’s the importance of movie theaters?
One answer might simply be the Oscars. “Pulp Fiction” producer Michael Shambergtold Bloombergthat a theatrical release makes him take “Beasts of No Nation” more seriously.”Knowing that the movie is playing in Toronto, knowing it’ll be in a theater, makes me view it differently.” Shamberg will be one of those voting at Oscar time.
Even Cary Fukunaga, the director of “Beasts of No Nation” as well as HBO’s “True Detective,” is skittish when it comes to Netflix-only offerings.”I was nervous it would just be an online film,”Fukunaga told Variety. “I just hope they watch it all the way through. When you watch at home, you’re tempted to watch in pieces, and the emotional experience is interrupted.” Netflix added a theatrical component to “Beasts of No Nation” partially to appease Fukunaga,Variety reports.
But Sarandos himself seems to dismiss these types of critiques. “We need to stop distinguishing the experience by access in a world where people come to expect anything they want, whenever they want,”he said in a speech last November. In other words: who cares if it’s in theaters or not?
Netflix wants to continue to grow its enormous 65 million subscriber base. That much is certain. And high-quality films, the type that take home Oscars, are part of that vision. But it remains to see whether traditional theaters eventually have a place in Netflix’s master plan.
Watch the trailer for “Beasts of No Nation” below: