Netflix Storms Venice Film Fest Amid Anti-Theater Concerns

The Venice Film Fest gets underway at the Palazzo del Cinema on Sept. 2.

Months after the streamer was criticized for destroying Europe's cherished theater culture, the digital giant is invading the oldest film festival to premiere its first original film, Cary Fukunaga's 'Beasts of No Nation.'

This story first appeared in the Aug. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Netflix already is on your TVs, phones, tablets and laptops -- and now the content streamer is expanding into the prestigious film-fest arena with original movies. On Sept. 3, Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, which Netflix plans to release simultaneously in theaters and on VOD on Oct. 16, will have its world premiere at, of all places, Venice, the world's oldest film festival.

The drama, starring Idris Elba as an African warlord who forces a young boy to join his mercenary army, seems like classic festival fare. The Venice bow also is timed nicely for Netflix, leading up to launch of the company's Italian service in October. With a follow-up screening in Toronto, Beasts will be positioned to become part of the awards conversation.

But Netflix's move into the film -- and film festival -- business has proved controversial. At Cannes in May, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos was lambasted by French reporters. One accused him and his company of destroying Europe's "film ecosystem" by drawing audiences away from theaters.

It's a fear shared by many U.S. theater owners. To date, giants Cinemark, Regal and AMC have no plans to play Beasts, saying the VOD release violates their policies and undermines their business model. Landmark Theatres, owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, stepped in and agreed to screen the film in 19 markets the day of its Netflix premiere.

'Beasts of No Nation'

Venice also is taking a gamble with Netflix and Beasts, but fourth-year fest director Alberto Barbera argues that the future of film festivals is in collaboration, not confrontation, with streaming platforms.

"Netflix, and perhaps Amazon in the future, will for sure become important players in film production and distribution all over the world. We can't ignore them," says Barbera, who met with Netflix this year in Los Angeles while programming the 2015 festival.

At Cannes, Harvey Weinstein went further, defending Netflix as the savior of the foreign-language art house genre championed by fes­tivals. Weinstein credits the streamer with creating a new market for art house cinema, particularly in the U.S. Recent deals to back Brad Pitt's military satire War Machine and Christopher Guest's mockumentary Mascots see Netflix continuing in this indie, alternative vein.

In any case, argues Barbera, movie-watching has changed, and festivals must change with it or get left behind.

"It's not possible to continue with a system based on the past," he says. "It's changing so quickly that you have to … find a solution. I don't think digital platforms are going to kill the theatrical release. They should work together to increase the number of viewers and find a way to coexist."