These days, after all, a good payday for a small, independent film is in the $3 to $5 million range. Moreover, Netflix was buying an incredibly niche film about a very dark and difficult subject. Based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts follows the story of Abu, a young boy in a West African village who, after losing his father and brother and being separated from his mother, is brought under the wing of a charismatic but craven guerrilla military leader (Idris Elba), who trains him to be a cold-blooded killer.
Beasts marks Netflix’s first foray into feature filmmaking and distribution: On Friday, Oct. 16th, Beasts will be the first Netflix film to be released simultaneously in 29 theaters and on its streaming service. This is a major shake-up to an industry in which movies generally get a 90-day window before they hit the Internet or DVDs. It will also be, if all goes according to plan, the company’s first feature film to compete for Oscars and “really challenge the system in what is an Oscar-worthy movie” says Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. “What is a movie? What is cinema? Those are the questions that people are going to be asking over the next year.”
And the deal was classic Netflix: grab people’s attention with a splashy number and then go to work upending a traditional business model. In this case, that’s the business of making movies. It’s essentially what Netflix did to television back in 2010 when it paid a reported $100 million for the first two seasons of House of Cards, the initial high-caliber series brought to you by a streaming service and the reason we now view shows like Transparent (from Netflix rival Amazon) in the same light as HBO’s Game of Thrones. Netflix was also revolutionary in the way it gave director David Fincher full creative control of the series, a move it’s replicated with Beasts: Fukunaga was granted final cut of the film, allowing him to retain a level of violence that most studio executives would likely want to tone down. In one early scene (spoiler alert!), Agu brings a machete down on a man’s skull as the man frantically pleads for his life.
The film’s quality aside–and there is a reason it will generate Oscar buzz–there’s a real business strategy at play here. This is Netflix we’re talking about–a company that’s more about long-term growth and planning, and a characteristically global view of the entertainment world, than Sarandos lets on. It’s a strategy that goes far beyond nabbing some Oscar nominations (and, possibly, wins) and producing TV shows and movies that generate buzz. This is a company, after all, that as one TV agent said to me once, “doesn’t want to be CBS or the CW–they want to be television.” Envision a world in which all you need or want on the screen in front of you is Netflix. For kids’ programming, for romantic comedies, for documentaries, and, yes, for an incredibly violent yet beautifully made film about a boy soldier in Africa.
Looking at the Beasts play helps shed some light on that bigger picture plan. Here is a breakdown of why the company went so big on Fukunaga’s film.
In order for Netflix to become the be-all, end-all of your television needs, it needs content. Lots of content. Every possible kind of it, and, ideally, stuff that plays well in multiple parts of the globe. Hence the deal with Adam Sandler (who’s big in Latin America) to release his next four films. And the deal with the Duplass brothers (no full-fledged TV service would be complete without a mumblecore category). And one with the Weinstein Co. and Imax to distribute the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel in theaters and on Netflix next summer. Netflix also just acquired worldwide rights to Jadotville, a war thriller starring 50 Shades of Grey actor Jamie Dornan that will go into production next spring. And Angelina Jolie is directing First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, based on Loung Ung’s memoir of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime. Like Beasts, it will be released next fall in time for awards consideration.
By producing or acquiring all these films, Netflix is able to become less reliant on licensing material–which can be a tricky business when you want to release stuff all over the globe simultaneously. Licenses run out, or can be for different lengths of time in different territories, or not even be available in some territories. By having an ownership stake, Netflix can control its content. Not just what that content is, but how it’s rolled out.
And, of course, Netflix being Netflix, all of these films are being selected with the help of algorithms. Just as the decision to green-light House of Cards was helped by the fact that Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and the original BBC series all have a serious following on the service, Elba is another Netflix fan favorite. Interestingly, that’s not because of his memorable turn on The Wire, but from his role on another BBC series, Luther. Netflix also did tests on how films with similar subject matter to Beasts fared on the platform: apparently, rather well. Or at least well enough to justify what Netflix spent on the film.
Powering all this content, of course, are content creators, and to build up its platform Netflix needs to become a top destination for filmmakers, particularly the kind of prestige filmmakers that generate buzz around Oscar time. In other words, it needs to play the Hollywood game and convince people like Fukunaga that Netflix is just as good as Harvey Weinstein or A24 when it comes to championing a film. “It’s a way for them to plant their flag,” says one Oscar pundit. “It says: ‘We take on serious subjects. We back our filmmakers and their vision. We throw money at it. We’re here for you. It’s an old play. The message is: Come under our tent. It says to Oscar-caliber filmmakers: Come to us first and second, not third or fourth. We’re gonna back you.”
This is exactly the message that was behind that $12 million offer for Beasts, which cost about half of that to make. The film has had a long history–it’s been a nine-year slog for Fukunaga, who originally set up the film at Focus Features, the prestige film division of NBCUniversal, which put it into turnaround. Several years and a hit TV series later–Fukunaga directed the first season of True Detective–Beasts was finally produced, shot, and taken to the market.
Netflix’s offer blew him away, says Fukunaga, who adds that Netflix’s business model was an added relief. Because the company makes money on its 65 million subscribers, it is almost irrelevant how Beasts does at the box office.
“What I realized is that (Netflix) didn’t have to make that money back in the way that other studios would. So for the investors in the film–I was not one of the investors–who put money in, I felt very good for them. The whole time I was making the film, I was thinking in the back of my mind, ‘I don’t know how it is ever going to make enough money to get them the money back.”
Netflix further won over Fukunaga by giving Beasts a theatrical run alongside its streaming launch–a deal point that Fukunaga had to negotiate. And then there was the offer of final cut, a move that allowed Fukunaga to retain the film’s borderline disturbing level of violence.
Without that protection, Fukunaga says he worried about what a studio might do. “Are they going to try to attenuate it or make it less offensive? Shorten the movie?” he says. “That was sort of one of the attractive parts about Netflix was that [the film] doesn’t have to be a box office performer. They can just get behind the filmmaking.”
More than anything else, Beasts is an incredible marketing tool for Netflix, one that has already been in play for several weeks now. Ever since it premiered at the prestigious trifecta of film festivals in September–Venice, Telluride, and Toronto–it has been garnering buzz and inspiring media coverage. In fact, the film’s young star, Abraham Attah, is already burnt out from all of it. He recently told the New York Times that he’s grown weary of interviews: “I know everything they’re going to ask me, so I’m tired.”
Sadly for Attah, this is only the beginning. To spread the word about Beasts, Netflix is planning an aggressive awards campaign. Elba seems to be the strongest Oscar contender as a supporting actor, but even if it doesn’t win in 2016, for the next few months Netflix will be in the awards conversations, introducing a new element to its brand: prestige feature films. Not only will this serve as a clarion call to filmmakers like Fukunaga, but to the population at large to sign up for Netflix.
Netflix has thrown its weight (and coffers) around in this area before. To promote Virunga, an Oscar nominee last year in the documentary category, Netflix spent almost $3 million, according to a source familiar with the deal. There were full-page ads in the New York Times and Vanity Fair, a screening attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton, and constant schmoozing by Sarandos and Leonardo DiCaprio, an executive producer on the film. And a year earlier, it gave a big push to another documentary, The Square.
“They’re definitely pushing the film hard,” says Fukunaga. “They kind of intimated that, but I don’t know if they put that into words. But what I knew was that they were going to put publicity behind it to get their subscribers to watch.”
Ah, yes, subscribers. One big reason that a $12-million gamble isn’t actually much of a gamble at all.