Netflix's Ted Sarandos on 'Beasts of No Nation' Allure: "It Was Not a Focus-Grouped Film"

PHOTOGRAPHED BY Austin Hargrave
From left: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Cary Fukunaga and Ted Sarandos

The Idris Elba drama's entrance into the awards race upends yet another traditional distribution model.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

If 2014 was the year that digital streaming services crashed the TV business, in 2015 that invasion extended to movies in a major way. With Beasts of No Nation, Netflix, just as it did with House of Cards, upended the traditional distribution model and is being rewarded for taking the risk.

The Cary Fukunaga-directed drama about child soldiers has muscled its way into the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award races, with the Oscars in sight. The early recognition no doubt is validating for Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who plunked down $12 million for worldwide rights to the gritty film.

"It didn't flinch," he says of Beasts. "It was not a focus-grouped film." Moreover, he believed his streaming service — which boasts 69 million global subscribers and a 2016 content budget of $5 billion — would offer the bleak, 137-minute film starring Idris Elba and 15-year-old Abraham Attah two things the art house theatrical circuit could not: viewers and profits. "Everyone seems very comfortable with the martyrdom that we put artists through," continues Sarandos. "It's impossible for them to make money and advance their art, but in this case the producers of the film made their money very nicely, and the film got a big audience."

Sarandos has been making his case all over Hollywood, part of an aggressive bid to beef up a broad film portfolio (Adam Sandler comedies, a Pee-wee Herman flick and a Brad Pitt military satire) to mirror that of TV. The push already has been emulated by Amazon, which this year hired veteran indie film execs Ted Hope and Bob Berney to build a slate of smaller-budget films. It has its own awards hopes for Spike Lee's well-reviewed gun satire Chi-Raq, which will hit Amazon Prime Video weeks after a limited run in theaters.

Still, Fukunaga insists he would not have sold Beasts to Netflix had it not agreed to supplement streaming with a theatrical release. (The film opened in 31 Landmark theaters and earned only $51,000 for the weekend. Major chains refused to be part of its day-and-date rollout.) "It was important to me not just in terms of perception but also in terms of being seen by an audience — it was executed for that," says the director. "No matter how great a TV show is, nothing beats the engagement of being in a dark room with a bunch of people watching a film together, and the emotions of that experience are exponential due to everyone sharing it."

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