Netflix’s first original movie, an unsparing war drama about child soldiers in West Africa, has heated up a battle back in the United States, pitting the streaming giant against America’s movie theaters over the future of how we watch new films.
“Beasts of No Nation,” a film-festival darling starring Idris Elba, will premiere on both Netflix and in some theaters Friday, under a groundbreaking arrangement that Netflix hopes could do for its movie prestige what “House of Cards” achieved for its original TV programming.
The theater premiere could mark the first time a film contends for not just an Emmy but an Academy Award and kick off Netflix’s long-term spearheading of in-house movies, including an upcoming sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
But the simultaneous screenings have upset the natural order protecting theaters’ long-running stronghold of Hollywood premieres, and the nation’s top multiplex chains have fought back by refusing to debut the award contender on their silver screens.
“Theater owners get frustrated when, for [public relations] purposes, Netflix makes these grand pronouncements about changing the industry,” said Patrick Corcoran, vice president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents the chains. “You can’t revolutionize the theater industry without bringing the theater industry along.”
The tiff has exposed an increasingly bitter power struggle between Hollywood’s new school and old guard, as streaming services’ push for subscribers grinds against the movie-gatekeeper model that has long kept theaters in control.
But it could also signal a broader shift in how media and Web titans such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.com compete to rewrite one of filmmakers’ and moviegoers’ longest-held traditions: the marquee box-office release.
“Everyone has a big stake in the status quo, and incumbents don’t like change,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said in an interview last year. The long waits for movies to hit streaming services, he said, are “meant to preserve an aura of premium-ness because you can’t get to it. . . . We need to compete for consumer attention with the experience and the quality of the film, not the preciousness of access. The experience has to come first.”
Since the ’80s dawn of the VCR, studios and theaters have agreed to 90-day windows between movies’ big-screen premieres and their first availability for viewers at home, believing anything shorter would cut into their biggest profit drivers: box-office sales.
“Theaters need that window or else what makes that theatrical experience special goes away,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, a trade site. “If you start getting the consumer to think, ‘Maybe I can skip this movie in theaters because it will probably be available at home in two weeks,’ that’s a dangerous thing. A lot of movies simply spend too much money to be able to do that. They need that theatrical window to be profitable.”
But that traditional model has begun to unravel as video services and some filmmakers have fought to make movies available far faster for audiences increasingly hungry for on-demand entertainment.
Netflix has helped lead the charge: Sarandos has said filming, marketing and distributing a movie to theaters, only to then lock it away for months, can for moviegoers today seem “hugely frustrating . . . [and] remarkably out of step.”
That Netflix, a ’90s Web start-up once known for mass-mailing DVDs, is becoming an aggressive player in filmmaking and distribution has not gone unnoticed among the country’s largest theater chains.
AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmike have pledged not to show “Beasts of No Nation,” saying it would take up lucrative theater space that could be better used for movies not also viewable from your couch.
What Netflix will lose in box- office revenue, though, it could gain in cachet, as it pushes to portray itself less as a dumping ground for other studios’ old franchises and more as an indispensable entertainment broker, willing to invest in thoughtful ideas — and worth the $9 to $10 monthly subscription fee.
“Beasts of No Nation,” adapted from the 2005 debut by D.C.-born novelist Uzodinma Iweala, was never going to be the kind of blockbuster to attract long crowds on a Friday night. Shot over seven weeks in Ghana, the film follows a young orphaned boy named Agu who is conscripted into a child militia led by the Commandant, Elba’s fearsome warlord.
Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, the 38-year-old director of HBO’s first season of “True Detective,” the film has drawn comparisons to “Apocalypse Now” for its kaleidoscopic and nightmarish descent into the savagery of war. A film trailer opens with Agu, dwarfed by a pair of combat boots, tottering down into a blood-red trench while clutching a Kalashnikov-style rifle and lit cigarette.
Starring mostly local children and first-time actors, including Abraham Attah, a West African teenager discovered while he was playing soccer, the movie has swiftly become a surprise darling of the film circuit, debuting to applause in Venice, Toronto and Telluride. Elba, the British-born star of “The Wire” television series, is now the leading candidate to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, according to Gold Derby, an award handicapping site.
Netflix spent $12 million to buy the film, twice what it cost to make and far more than analysts expect the movie will earn during its limited big-screen run with Landmark Theatres, a 50-theater indie-film chain in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. “Our reach will be so far beyond what I’ve done in the feature world,” Fukunaga told the Associated Press.
Netflix said it will use its peculiar debut to try for an Oscar and an Emmy. Company spokeswoman Anne Marie Squeo said the film will definitely qualify for the Academy Awards but added that “it’s possible we qualify for an Emmy, too, but that’s less certain.”
Following “Beasts,” Netflix will extend its slate of original films with some decidedly lighter fare, unveiling its first of four Adam Sandler movies, a comedy- western called “The Ridiculous Six,” in December and a new martial-arts epic, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend,” premiering in Chinese theaters and on Netflix early next year.
Even with the theater boycotts, the streaming giant has shown no limit to its ambition. Netflix is now backing a Brad Pitt military satire, “War Machine,” and the mockumentary “Mascots” by Christopher Guest, who directed “Best in Show.”
Netflix stock dipped 3 percent Wednesday after the company said it had signed up fewer new U.S. members than expected and suffered sinking profits due partly, the company said, to subscription hiccups tied to a nationwide shift to chip-based credit cards.
But Netflix’s worldwide streaming revenue last quarter was still 30 percent higher over the same time last year, at $1.5 billion, and its 69 million international members now watch more than 100 million hours of TV shows and movies every day, the company said.
Franchises such as “Crouching Tiger” could further fuel its global expansion. Available in 50 countries, the service recently launched in Japan and will debut in Italy, Portugal and Spain next week.
The simultaneous “Beasts” premiere will probably fuel discussions over more modern models on which moviegoers can take in Hollywood’s best. DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg has routinely talked of allowing movie watchers to “pay by the inch,” watching a movie on the big screen for, say, $15, but on a smartphone for $1.99.
But Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with industry researcher Rentrak, says that doesn’t necessarily sound the death knell for the American multiplex.
“The consumer loves all this stuff. The big screen, the small screen, they both create excitement on the part of the moviegoer that transcends all the release patterns,” Dergarabedian said. “Seeing a movie on the big screen, there’s nothing like that. . . . Everybody has a kitchen, but they love to go out to eat.”
Cecilia Kang contributed to this report.