“Beasts of No Nation,” the first theatrical release from streaming giant Netflix, finds itself in the middle of another battlefield as it arrives in theaters Friday.
Netflix will make the critically-acclaimed film available for download at the same time that it debuts in 31 locations in the top 30 markets — but none of those theaters are run by the biggest chains.
Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”) wrote, shot and directed “Beasts of No Nation,” which stars Idris Elba and is the story of a civil war in an unnamed country in Africa told through the eyes of a child soldier.
In an interview with TheWrap, Fukunaga shrugged off the slight by large theater chains.
“Those same theater chains would never have shown the film, no matter who released it,” he said. “My concern is that people know it’s in Landmark theaters in 31 markets around the country and in England. It was designed to be seen on a big screen.”
“Beasts of No Nation,” which is at the forefront of early Academy Award discussions, is the latest battle in the expanding war between exhibitors, consumers, studios and filmmakers over when, where and how first-run films will be screened.
Major chains AMC, Regal, Carmike and Cinemark all opted not to show “Beasts” to protest the breaking of the traditional 90-day exclusivity period theaters typically enjoy on new releases. They view giving consumers the option of simultaneous streaming of a new release as encroachment on their turf, but smaller independent film companies are going that route with increasing frequency.
On Wednesday, Paramount Pictures issued a projection for next week’s opening of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” that was half what tracking suggested after a similarly slashed theater count. That’s because the four top theater chains are refusing to screen the film after the studio said it would shorten the waiting period for video on demand in an experiment.
Netflix last year found a similar chilly reaction when the major theaters balked at showing a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel it had partnered on with the Weinstein Company and IMAX. And the major theaters refused to play “The Interview” when Sony wanted to roll it out and make it available on VOD at the same time last winter.
The key question is how many moviegoers will shell out $10-$15 for theater tickets as opposed to streaming it at home? For an industry increasingly seeing consumers migrate to their couch rather the multiplexes, it’s a very big one. One of the reasons the film’s producers opted for Netflix’s $12 million distribution offer is that they saw the potential for more viewers than specialty labels like Sony Classics or Focus Features would deliver.
“It doesn’t seem like a commercial play, because theaters don’t really fit into the Netflix business model,” said Exhibitor Relations senior analyst Jeff Bock. “But it does speak to auteurs and young filmmakers like Fukunaga, and it says we want you to be part of our family, we can get your film in front of a huge audience and you into the Oscar parties, too.”
Violet Crown Cinema, Landmark Theaters and other smaller specialty chains will all be showing the film. Grosses from those theaters and the streaming numbers — typically not released by Netflix — should be interesting to compare, if they’re available.
“It has the potential to have a major impact. The studios seem reluctant to acknowledge how big a deal Netflix is, and this might force them to rethink that,” Bock said. “If a streaming release becomes an option, as opposed to say a limited platform release, think of the marketing money they’d save on what’s essentially a wide release.”
Another film with awards hopes, “Room,” arrives in theaters Friday riding a wave of positive buzz after premiering at the Telluride Film Festival and winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. It has an impressive 95 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, too.
Brie Larson stars as a mother who, along with her son (Jason Trembley), has been held captive in a garden shed for five years. Joe Abrahamson directs the Irish-Canadian drama written by Emma Donaghue from her novel of the same name. Joan Allen, William Macy and Sean Bridgers co-star.
A24 is distributing the R-rated drama from Element Pictures, Film4 and No Trace Camping and is expected to have it in two theaters in New York and two in L.A.
Universal is expanding its awards flag-bearer “Steve Jobs” from four to 60 theaters Friday, ahead of its wide opening next weekend. Whether it can maintain a solid per-theater average while moving into the Heartland and other regions seen as less attuned to the tech world will be a key test for the biopic on the Apple Inc. founder.