Netflix's $12M Oscars Gamble: How to Keep 'Beasts of No Nation' Alive

Beasts of no Nation Graphic  - H 2015

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

How do you define a "movie"? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been wrestling with that issue for more than 40 years, and the question of exactly what types of filmed entertainment should qualify for Academy Award consideration is only getting trickier as the dividing lines among theatrical motion pictures, made-for-TV movies and, with the arrival of streaming services like Netflix, films distributed via the Internet only have gotten more amorphous.

Enter Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, Netflix's first bid for across-the-board Oscar recognition. Having already established itself as an Emmy force, the company, which acquired the $6 million Beasts for $12 million in March, now is attempting to muscle into the Oscar race. Over the past two seasons, it has earned noms for documentaries The Square and Virunga. But this year, it's setting its sights on the major categories for the first time.

On the face of it, Beasts is the type of serious-minded fare that forces the Academy to take notice. Fukunaga, an Emmy winner for directing the first season of HBO's True Detective, is a rising auteur who not only wrote and directed the film but also served as cinematographer and one of its producers. The account of a boy forced to become a child soldier in an African civil war, the film boasts compelling performances by Idris Elba as the Commandant who manipulatively controls the boys, and Abraham Attah, a 15-year-old from Ghana making an assured screen debut. One Academy member who has seen the film says, "It's a very worthwhile and deserving film, but in reality, it needed to get out of the gate like gangbusters."

Under Academy rules, Beasts qualifies for consideration because it began a brief theatrical run Oct. 16, the same day it debuted on Netflix. That rule is a relatively new one, though. For years, the Academy struggled to keep nontheatrical movies from passing themselves off as theatrical features. Way back in 1974, there was an uproar when the Academy, citing techni­calities, disqualified Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, which aired on European TV before its U.S. theatrical release. The Academy subsequently established a blanket prohibition forbidding movies that appeared in any medium before playing theaters from bidding for Oscars. But in 2012, it added a slight revision, allowing a movie to begin a qualifying run in theaters on the same day as it debuts elsewhere.

Although the major theater chains refused to play Beasts because of its simultaneous Netflix debut, the film opened in 31 Landmark theaters — to crickets. Its first weekend take was only $51,000. While a poor box-office showing doesn't necessarily doom a movie's awards hopes, it doesn't help create a winning image, either. However, given the disappointing returns on other movies like Steve Jobs, Truth and Suffragette, Beasts could find itself competing on a relatively level, even if dramatically lowered, playing field. Even so, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who always has refused to discuss ratings for any Netflix offerings, was quick to announce that Beasts attracted more than 3 million viewers in North America during its first two weeks to become a resounding hit for the service. (There were no stats, though, as to how many of those viewers stuck it out for the film's full 137-minute running time.)

The Beasts team already has begun mounting a campaign to line up support­ers and make sure the title, which it insists should be viewed as an original feature film, stays in front of voters. On Oct. 13, Ben Affleck, John Legend and Elizabeth Banks hosted a Los Angeles premiere at the DGA Theater. Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, and producer James Schamus hosted another in New York. And there's more to come — including a Nov. 9 screening at the Malibu Film Society with Sally Field set to attend. While Elba has been filming the new Star Trek movie in Dubai, he's expected to make appearances in Los Angeles this month, while Attah will be dividing his time between New York and L.A. There are plans to send screeners to the guilds, hold industry screenings and book the film back into theaters in L.A. on a four-wall basis in December.

"We want the voters, like our customers, to be able to watch the movie however they choose," says Stephen Bruno, vp originals marketing at Netflix. "It's the common awards-season-strategy refrain: 'We want as many viewers to see the movie as possible so the movie can speak for itself.' "

Beyond that are the unknowns. When the movie played Telluride, there were some walkouts, leading to specu­lation that it could be too tough for some Academy members. While the average episode of The Walking Dead is a whole lot gorier, Beasts presents disquieting scenes of young kids turning into souless killers. On the other hand, the movie's chances could be boosted by its very visibility on Netflix, providing a constant reminder to viewers to check it out. That's an advantage that the average movie, buried in a stack of screeners, doesn't enjoy and could be Beasts' secret weapon.