You may have noticed that your entertainment experiences have been changing recently. More than likely, it’s been happening gradually enough you hardly even think about it. Yet, when more and more people want to watch movies now, they circumvent the expensive, loud, mall-esque experience of their local cineplex to simply pull up an Amazon or Apple rental on their Roku or Fire TV Stick. Three clicks and you could be watching Inglourious Basterds from your comfortable sofa, beer in hand, with the ability to pause Brad Pitt whenever your bladder fancies a break.
This shift in viewing ability is changing the content, the distribution, and the behavior of the viewers. “Binge-watching” has taken a significant seat at the table in the TV industry, with more shows aiming toward a large, season-driven story arc seen in shows such as Netflix’s House of Cards or AMC’s Breaking Bad. Television has seen plenty of fluctuation in production models, popular content, and, importantly, viewership, and there’s certainly more of that to come.
Three clicks and you could be watching Inglourious Basterds from your comfortable sofa, beer in hand, with the ability to pause Brad Pitt whenever your bladder fancies a break.
But this major shakeup, thanks to such fundamental advances as the internet and digital cameras, has impacted cinema just as much as television, which brings us to Beasts of No Nation. Directed by Cary Fukunaga, the director behind the entire first season of HBO’s heralded True Detective, the film shows a young African boy survive as a child soldier under the command of a surging Idris Elba. It was announced in March that the $6 million production was getting scooped up by the Los Gatos-based Netflix for the none-too-small sum of $12 million. Under the terms, the video streaming company would make the film available to users on the same day as it arrives in theaters, following a model that allows for immediate access while still making the film eligible for the Academy Awards early next year.
Although day-and-date releases have been around for at least a decade now, this was a bold move by a company that has primarily made its name as a streaming platform. Theaters responded with (somewhat expected) boycotts of the film, meaning that Beasts of No Nation would eventually receive a very limited release (on October 16, the film opened in 31 theaters, and grossed just under $91,000 in its two week run). However, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos made it clear that this relatively puny box office pull was but a sliver of the story, as he stated in an interview with Deadline Hollywood: “It is worth sharing that this movie, in North America alone, has over 3 million views already. Which I think is a bigger audience than any specialty film could ever hope for in its first two weeks of release, and maybe for its entire run.” And this is true. Even with ballpark math, 3 million views at a $10 ticket price far outweighs the production costs, much less the hefty price tag paid by Netflix for distribution rights.
The average cable bill in the US is roughly $86 per month: that’s enough to pay for Netflix, HBO GO, Amazon Prime, and still have enough left over for snacks.
Beasts of No Nation is a bellwether for the direction of an evolving industry, the proverbial starting gun in the coming production-and-distribution arms race. Netflix may seem far ahead, what with an ever-growing arsenal of original TV programming and a slate of feature releases over the next year (this includes a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and four Adam Sandler flicks). However, the other players are gearing up in similar fashion: HBO has been upgrading and stocking their streaming venture HBO Go, while Amazon (who has been surprisingly coy in the acquisitions arena thus far in 2015, save for grabbing the former Top Gear trio) picked up Scott Foundas, former film critic at Variety, as an executive in acquisitions and development.
But it doesn’t end there. CBS looks to boost their streaming service on the back of a Star Trek reboot, Hulu has recently introduced tiered-pricing to give users the option of foregoing ads, and the word is that Apple TV is in the exploratory phase with regards to original content. If you hate having to call Comcast to fight about a bill, you needn’t fret much longer, as the channels themselves aim to serve you their specific content, so long as you subscribe to their specific stream. The average cable bill in the US is roughly $86 per month: that’s enough to pay for Netflix, HBO GO, Amazon Prime, and still have enough left over for snacks.
If all of this seems a bit dizzying, it’s because it is. In the span of less than eight years, we’ve gone from the introduction of the unlimited streaming option for Netflix subscribers to a swath of original programming from an array of digital channels, some of which are beginning to sneak into the television awards conversation (see: Amazon’s Transparent). While far from a guarantee, Beasts of No Nation intends to be the candidate to make these same inroads in the film community. Should it get nominated for an Academy Award in a few months, it would be the first of its kind to do so.
Whether it gets nominated or not really doesn’t matter, however. Although many have termed the Netflix venture into theatrical releasing as a grand experiment, what happens next is inevitable. Digital-first studios such as Netflix and Amazon will only be venturing into disputed territory more and more, finding innovative ways to get their movies (and other content) to viewers faster and easier, while still finding ways to conform to traditional standards for purposes like awards eligibility.
And when all’s said and done, Beasts of No Nation will be remembered as a pivotal film. Regardless of its critical legacy (or low box office take), Netflix has made the first step into largely uncharted lands by taking this $12 million chance, and whether it makes up all or none of that purchasing price makes almost no difference at all. So next month when you’re settling down to catch Adam Sandler’s next film, The Ridiculous 6 (a joint venture with Netflix), just be thankful that it’s Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation that will be showing up in textbooks instead.