In March of this past year, Netflix purchased the rights to the brutal African civil war film Beasts of No Nation, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba, for $12m. Shortly after, NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners) member theater chains swore not to show the film due to the fact that Netflix wanted to release it on its streaming service the same day as in theaters. Then in July, the streaming giant made a deal with film distributors Bleecker Street and speciality theater company Landmark to show the film on 31 screens across the country. This past Friday, Beasts of No Nation made its box office debut … and did horribly.
The film grossed just $50,699 in all 31 theaters by the end of the weekend, which more or less makes it a significant flop when compared to its $6m budget. However, Netflix is still all smiles when it comes to their first original film. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Ted Sarandos, a chief Netflix executive, said “Beasts of No Nation is a visually beautiful and socially impactful film widely acclaimed by critics and enjoyed by film lovers both on Netflix and in theaters. It is a privilege to instantly offer a story this human, radical and worthy to people in more than 50 countries. Whether in theaters this week or on any Internet-connected device now or in years to come, people all over the world are getting a unique opportunity to appreciate this film.”
Taking a look at that statement, one gets the impression that Netflix wasn’t trying to make money from the film, and why would they? Beasts of No Nation isn’t an incredibly marketable film, nor easily watchable given its frank and brutal look at an already brutal subject. But it’s an incredible film. And Netflix knows that. That little bit of theater presence the film had this past weekend automatically makes it eligible for Oscar consideration which is exactly what Netflix is going for. With the success Netflix has had at the Emmys with shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, it’s only natural for the company to keep striving upwards, and the Oscars are the next biggest thing. What Netflix also recognizes is the importance of quality content and accessibility to that content. So, despite the fact that the film made less than $100k and was seen by even less people in theaters, Beasts was made available to a massive 43m Netflix subscribers. While the company has yet to release exact figures on how many subscribers streamed the film, Deadline quoted a Netflix rep as saying, “We aren’t issuing any metrics on the film’s performance on Netflix, but on background I can tell you we are very happy.”
Major theater chains and NATO, however, are not so happy. What this strategy did was call into question the standard capitalist practice of major theater chains. In most cases, a 90-day gap exists between the time a film is released in theaters and when the film is released to home entertainment platforms. And it’s in this 90-day window, when theaters are the only means through which to see a film, that they make their most money. Frankly, if 43 million subscribers could watch the movie on Friday from the comfort of their homes, why would any of them want to deal with the discomfort of getting off the couch and driving to a public theater? “The box office for Beasts of No Nation is not surprising, because Netflix had no faith in its commercial theatrical prospects and put no effort into its theatrical success. It was merely PR for the home video, which is usually the only point of simultaneous release,” NATO Vice President Patrick Corcoran stated to THR.
Corcoran’s statement is a flawed one. Calling Netflix’s strategy “merely” a PR stunt is a misunderstanding and a failure to recognize just how much the company is accomplishing with this one small film and one small strategy. Not only did Netflix shake up the major theater business, but they also delivered a tremendous film about an important subject to 43 million homes and also breathed even more life into it with its Oscar eligibility. It’s undeniable the company has very high hopes for its first original film, as well as for the way they can deliver content to customers. An Oscar nomination, and even more so a win, would surely propel Beasts of No Nation to an even larger audience and solidify Netflix as not only a company that delivers exceptional content, but one that delivers it innovatively.