This year’s Toronto Film Festival was always going to be a big event for Netflix. On Sunday, the streaming service held a premiere there for Beasts of No Nation, a film by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, True Detective) that is part of Netflix’s new push into making theatrical-quality films and releasing them simultaneously in theaters and online. Beasts, an adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about the guerrilla warfare that takes place in West Africa, as seen through the eyes of a young boy, will be available on Netflix on Oct. 16–when it also debuts in select theaters.
The move is a dramatic shake-up to the traditional movie distribution model, which posits that films must first be released in theaters–where, theoretically, people flock to see them in the comfort of a spacious theater, tub of popcorn in hand–before showing up on DVD or online platforms. This business is already being chipped away at by various players (including the Weinstein Company’s Radius label), but no one is busting it up with quite as much fanfare as Netflix, which made a deal to release Adam Sandler’s next four films, as well as the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Nowhere, though, is Netflix’s new push to do to movies what shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black did to TV shows, more on display than at Toronto, where Beasts held a glitzy red carpet premiere where the film’s stars–including Idris Elba and Abraham Attah–were flanked by ogling fans and the paparazzi.
And even beyond distribution models, Netflix is shaking up Toronto. According to a report in The Hollywood Reporter, the slow-moving festival, where there have been far fewer deals so far than in years past, is getting a kick in the pants from digital players like Netflix and Amazon, which have been aggressively chasing after titles. Netflix has reportedly been trying to make a deal with Michael Moore on his new doc, Where to Invade Next (Netflix has denied they made an offer), and is closing in on Our Souls at Night, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
The idea of Netflix haggling it out with filmmakers and trying to out-woo traditional indie players like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics may seem like rich irony for a company that likes to rely on algorithms and state of the art technology to beat the competition, but film festivals are actually an important part of Netflix’s DNA. As we reported in our Netflix feature last year, Netflix’s chief of content Ted Sarandos was a regular fest-goer when he was trying to rack up film titles to fill the service and having trouble shaking them out of major studios.
Sarandos fared better in the indie world, a natural fit since indie features were popular with Netflix’s early adopters, we wrote then. He made Netflix a regular presence at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards, and made the company’s acquisitions unit, called Red Envelope Entertainment, a notable, if small, player. The venture was a great way for Sarandos to forge relationships and hone his instincts. “The only move he had was to go after the independent community,” says Gina Keating, the author of the corporate history Netflixed. “He was just not getting any traction with the majors.” Sarandos helped release the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels and the Duplass brothers’ first feature. A comedy nerd, Sarandos filmed a Zach Galifianakis comedy special in 2006, three years before The Hangover made him a movie star. Red Envelope enabled him to become close to major figures like the Weinstein brothers, who have made many deals with Netflix over the years.
At Netflix, it seems, what goes around comes around.