Why Netflix Isn't Worried That 'Beasts of No Nation' Flopped in Theaters

Beasts of No Nation Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Netflix/Venice Film Festival

Beasts of No Nation Still - H 2015

Chief content officer Ted Sarandos defends the release strategy, saying, "Whether in theaters this week or on any Internet-connected device now or in years to come, people all over the world are getting a unique opportunity to appreciate this film."

Netflix has spent more than a year building its original movie division, paying top dollar to work with stars including Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler and to acquire specialty fare that could put the streaming service in the Oscar game.

This weekend, those efforts were tested for the first time as Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba, debuted on the streaming service around the world and in 31 theaters in 30 U.S. cities willing to play the dark African war drama even though it was available to 43 million Netflix subscribers in the U.S. (most cinema circuits refused on principle to carry Beasts).

Netflix paid a hefty $12 million for worldwide rights to the $6 million film, but by any traditional measure, Beasts of No Nation flopped theatrically, grossing $50,699 for a theater average of $1,635 (as a way of comparison, Chinese film Goodbye Mr. Loser took in $353,992 from 37 North American theaters over the weekend for a location average of $9,567).

Those behind the plan for Fukunaga's critically acclaimed film say it won't live or die by how it does in cinemas, and that it's about consumer choice. It's also about the Oscar race. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, the mastermind behind the company's move into original television programming, and his team have big awards ambitions for Beasts of No Nation, hence the film has to have some sort of presence in theaters.

"Beasts of No Nation is a visually beautiful and socially impactful film widely acclaimed by critics and enjoyed by film lovers both on Netflix and in theaters. It is a privilege to instantly offer a story this human, radical and worthy to people in more than fifty countries. Whether in theaters this week or on any Internet-connected device now or in years to come, people all over the world are getting a unique opportunity to appreciate this film," Sarandos said Sunday in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

Netflix scored best documentary feature nominations for The Square and Virunga during the past two awards seasons, but the big question will be whether awards voters will support a movie looking for recognition in the main categories that is primarily a small-screen play and isn't deemed a box-office success. Interestingly, Beasts of No Nation did best at the Landmark Theatre in the Westside of Los Angeles, a haven for members of the various guilds and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But even at the Landmark, it placed behind fellow award rivals Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies and Room. It did, however, virtually tie with Truth.

"From a marketing and awards perspective, we have no dent in our armor. People are really liking it," said another Netflix executive. "Clearly, a lot of people made the choice to watch it on Netflix and some made the decision to see it in theaters."

With these grosses, Beasts of No Nation isn't likely to stay in theaters for long. Netflix and partner Bleecker Street are already planning to rent, or "four wall," screens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in December as awards campaigning intensifies.

The majority of the 31 theaters carrying the film were Landmark locations, or 19. Landmark is the largest chain in the U.S. dedicated to arthouse fare.

As a whole, the theater exhibition community has taken none too kindly to Netflix's foray into original movies and its attempt to open a film in theaters at the same time as making it available on the streaming service.

"The box office for Beasts of Nation is not surprising because, because Netflix had no faith in its commercial theatrical prospects and put no effort into its theatrical success," National Association of Theater Owners vice president Patrick Corcoran said Sunday "It was merely PR for the home video, which is usually the only point of simultaneous release."

Netflix does not release viewership results for any of its programming.