A Whole New Beast
By Michael LeaserTwo stories surround the October 16 release of Beasts of No Nation: one regarding the film’s exceptional artistry and the other its potentially game-changing release model. Concerning the first, writer/director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) has crafted an extraordinary film, enveloping the viewer into the world of a young African boy, from innocent childhood to a series of tragic events that lead the boy to serve in the ranks of a rogue band of fighters led by its charismatic, yet morally twisted leader (Idris Elba). Unlike other films about African child soldiers, Fukunaga succeeds in getting the viewer not only to identify with, but almost to feel like a fellow participant in, young Agu’s (Abraham Attah) plight. He accomplishes this in part by removing the lens of a Caucasian or American protagonist through which a Western viewer might more readily identify and view the proceedings. (Blood Diamond is a fairly recent example that deals with the same topic but stars Caucasians Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connolly.) Thus more than half-way through the film, when the viewer is trudging along the road next to Agu and his fellow soldiers and a UN vehicle drives by with our first glimpse of a Caucasian character, the effect is jarring; the vehicle and its inhabitant feel foreign.Young Abraham Attah completely sells Agu’s transformation from a playful, innocent boy to a hurt and confused child who has witnessed the summary and unjust execution of his father and brother, to a needy young man who latches onto a charismatic but severely flawed and abusive father figure who compels him to commit horrific, traumatizing, and soul-deadening atrocities. Beasts of No Nation is ready-made Oscar bait, but unlike other small budget, prestige films, its producers made a profit before it was even released, thanks to their distribution deal with Netflix. Having already produced Emmy award-winning content (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black), Netflix is making its first narrative Oscar play with Beasts of No Nation and delivering a much larger audience than such a film would normally receive. As of October 26, Netflix users in North America alone viewed Beasts of No Nation more than three million times in 10 days. That would translate to approximately $24.5 million in theatrical ticket sales, exposure most any independent film producer would consider a success. Because of Academy rules, the film still needed a theatrical release, so Netflix made a deal with Landmark theaters for a limited day and date theatrical release in 31 North American theaters.As part of a larger original feature film strategy, Beasts of No Nation is just the beginning for Netflix. In December, they are releasing the first of four films co-produced with Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions, The Ridiculous 6. Also coming in the next year or so are the Brad Pitt-starrer War Machine and Angelina Jolie’s next directorial effort, First They Killed My Father. With higher ticket prices and more attractive home theater setups, people are even less inclined to see a non-spectacle superhero film in theatres, especially in the United States. And as important films like Beasts of No Nation struggle even to get made in today’s challenging theatrical environment, media streaming companies’ production and acquisition of original films that cater to the growing home theater crowd may likely signal a significant shift in how films are made, sold, and viewed.