In Beasts of No Nation, Idris Elba did something difficult. He injected fragility into a portrayal of a brutal commandante of child soldiers. He was the anchor of Cary Fukunaga’s Netflix-backed baby, which captured the choicelessness of civil-war-torn Africa.
Fukunaga, for his part, added nuance to our nation’s naive, Kony 2012-framed conception of that desperate era. His sympathetic portrayal of the continent blended stunning landscapes, intimate close-ups of terror and unflinching tracking shots of barely conceivable violence. The film dripped with jarring power and vivid humanity. The immersive performances, palpable cinematography and complicated character quagmires made it one of this year’s finest films.
But when this year’s Oscar nominees were announced, Netflix found itself with just two pity nods for documentaries—any recognition for Beasts was nowhere to be found. You could try arguing that gruesome prepubescent combat leans too extreme for the old, white Academy, but don’t forget that horrific African genocide didn’t dissuade them from shouting out Hotel Rwanda or The Last King of Scotland in years past.
Nope—Fukunaga and Elba didn’t get the love they deserved because people watched the movie from couches rather than in sticky-floored auditoriums.
2014 yielded the lowest rates of theater attendance in the last 20 years. Big studios have compensated by doubling down on past successes, pushing aside new, riskier efforts for crunchy retreads that people will attend out of inertia. Ipso facto, there are 155 sequels currently percolating—a bubble more precarious than the housing market in 2007 Florida.
Netflix is going another way. After mastering the streaming business and toppling the studio status quo, the online Goliath wants to invade another realm—original full-length films.
They dropped $12 million for Beasts because they can. The $6.78 billion company boasts 75 million subscribers and hogs 36% of all downstream internet traffic. Their upcoming originals rival any other studio.
They got Melissa Leo (The Fighter) spouting unapologetic atheism; Sarah Hyland (the Modern Family baddie) chasing EDM-centric satisfaction; Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as a greeting card writer clearing his name for murder; and some guy named Brad Pitt as a celebrity four-star general disillusioned by Afghanistan.
The line-up glistens with originality and panache. It’s a spicy, nutritious alternative to the fast-food fleeting pleasure of yet another gaudy rerun starring characters you’re bored of in a plot that doesn’t matter.
In a cocky flourish to their coup, Netflix will be debuting all of these in theaters before offering them exclusively on their site. They’ll help themselves to a slice of box office pie while roping in any remaining skeptics. If Netflix makes your new favorite movie, you won’t be able to watch it anywhere else. And once they’ve hooked you, you’ll spend less nights out and more nights in their ever-replenishing rabbit hole.
Netflix can afford to take risks and respect discerning tastes. They don’t rely solely on fickle box office openings. They get your money every month, even if you don’t like their new stuff. So they can swing big at prestige pictures. If they miss, their constantly rising stack of cash will cushion the fall and fund other ventures.
To bolster their already frothing cash flow, Netflix could also vanguard the filling of another dearth. They tapped a half-Japanese director and a black Brit for Beasts. They could cater to the oodles of Americans hungry for more diversity as evidenced by their hashtags and viewing choices.
A Nat Turner biopic just swept Sundance. Empire gained viewers each week to become last year’s biggest show. And a film with black, female and Guatemalan leads just made more money than any movie ever. These projects aren’t just more interesting and reflective of America, they’re also lucrative—another no-duh bonanza.
Netflix makes other studios blanch. They give niche treats to cult fan bases, tell stories from novel perspectives and attract performers of proper pomp to make pictures that demand recognition. As they leap from the perceived gutter of online streaming into theatres, it seems unthinkable that they don’t pull down at least one true nom next year.
Beasts of No Nation marks Netflix’s first drizzles of Oscar-worthy content. The Academy can put up their umbrellas and pretend it’s not raining, but that won’t stop the tsunami.