For the Annual Review we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment. Here we tackle the streaming revolution that’s happening in living rooms across the country. Services like Netflix are forever changing the way we consume entertainment and we talk to revolutionary director, Cary Fukunaga about his film Beasts of No Nation which was the first to be released in theaters and online simultaneously.
We live online. We do our jobs, manage our finances, shop, rant, game, learn, date, discover, reflect, escape, connect, share our sorrows and our joys online. Two hours a day on social media adds up to one whole month out of the year. And that’s not counting emails. Or Netflix.
Netflix, the online streaming service, started using its hard data on what subscribers were watching and moved from solely delivering others’ content into creating content of their own - and by making all the episodes available at once, tapped into and enabled a burgeoning appetite for binge-watching. No more waiting for the next episode. No more exchanging DVD box sets. All of the episodes, all of the time - a click away whenever and wherever you want it.
As information sharing and connection immediacy increases, so does our impatience to experience what we anticipate. And fingers get sticky when it comes to the apparently victimless crime of pirated movie streaming. Whereas international markets used to wait a year or more to see movies after they opened in the US, now roll outs are being compressed into smaller and smaller timeframes to try and eliminate the choice of an audience deciding whether to wait for it or hunt down a pirated copy.
Hollywood is understandably panicking about this. Watching movies communally in darkened public spaces has been sacrosanct to cinema’s idea of itself since the art form was birthed 120 years ago. Moreover, the theatrical experience has equally been sacrosanct to the bottom line - which, now in competition with sophisticated home entertainment systems, a world wide web awash with content pirates, a what I want, when I want it audience expectation, and a totally collapsed DVD recoupment corridor, is less secure than ever.
“The world is changing,” Cary Fukunaga, writer, director, producer, and cinematographer of Beasts of No Nation, acknowledges. “I made the film to be seen in cinemas, not online - but I have to be honest with myself, as a filmmaker and a film viewer, it would be disingenuous to say I only watch movies in the theater.” Beasts of No Nation, based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about a child soldier and rebel commandant, recently became the first movie to be simultaneously released in theaters and on Netflix’s online platform, after the streaming giant outbid all competitors and paid $12M for the privilege - putting the independent African war child movie immediately into profit.
The Beasts of No Nation director felt cautious about the deal initially. “I still feel that the theatrical experience is the most engrossing and powerful way to watch the movie - and the film was conceived and executed to be seen like that. But it was also hard to imagine how a movie like this would ever go out into the world and make a profit. I felt responsible to our investors, who were incredibly supportive. We were all passionate. The film felt important, but it leaves you with more questions than answers - and that is difficult for a theatrical audience.”
The film opened simultaneously in select US and UK theaters and globally on Netflix in October 2015, following a strong critical response at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. While the theatrical numbers were modest, Netflix reported that the film was seen on their platform by three million people in the US alone in the first week of its release. That blew Fukunaga away. “Anything that millions of people see is pretty hard to fathom, especially when it’s something you’ve created. The fact that millions of people were watching was more than we could have asked or imagined with a story like this. What the simultaneous online release did was empower a huge audience who may never have got to see it in the theater. It felt like a process of releasing the expectation of how audiences would come to the film and focusing instead on the storytelling.”
As a director, Cary Fukunaga has already been part of breaking ground in small screen cinema. He directed all eight episodes of anthology crime drama True Detective’s first season, filming the series more as an extended feature than in the usual TV ‘block’ formatting. The series received rave reviews from critics and audiences thanks to its novelistic storytelling, complex and compelling central performances, and cinematic craft. In advance of our conversation, I had wondered whether Fukunaga was particularly passionate about innovating form, and that’s why his work has been progressive in terms of bringing cinema to the small screen - but he claims this factor has been somewhere between incidental and pragmatic. “I don’t think in terms of cinematic or non cinematic. I only know how to shoot something as I see it in my head. That’s directing - both in prep and in execution - to unify everyone, all of the creatives, with how you see the images coming together to tell the story. And that needs to be cinematic and crafted no matter where the movie will be seen, no matter what format.”
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer apparently agrees. In a recent conversation with Deadline, he mused: “There are films like Interstellar where you cannot replicate the experience of seeing it in IMAX – it’s an amazing film presented in a spectacular way,” he said. “It really is an experience, like going to Disneyland, and you can’t replicate that by watching home videos of going to Disneyland. But there are plenty of movies where viewing at home experience is exactly the same.”
Theater owners are fighting Sarandos tooth and nail on this however. In 2014 Netflix signed a four-movie deal with VOD heavyweight Adam Sandler after reaching an agreement for a simultaneous online release of the The Weinstein Co.’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel. Theater owners responded by refusing to book the movie in regular cinemas and it’s theatrical release will be limited to IMAX. And the theater owners’ outrage towards another Netflix/Weinstein collaboration, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, brought down that deal altogether. The Hateful Eight will now be distributed per standard arrangement, preserving the exclusive window between theatrical and online availability - albeit with a souped-up 70mm film theatrical rollout. Which means non-pirating online viewers will just have to wait to get their QT fix.
Sarandos, in another conversation with Deadline, was adamant: “I don’t think this is a reflection of people’s preferences. If you want to go out and see a movie and sit in a dark room with strangers, it’s not an experience you can replicate at home. But it is a very good experience, to watch a movie at home in 4k, in the comfort of your living room. That’s the way most people see their movies. It’s a very sexy thing to talk about whether there’s a feud [between Netflix and theaters], but I think what’s really happening here is that we’re offering consumers a lot of choices they didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s interesting, the whole debate and us spending a lot of time talking about windows, and theater owners and splits. Consumers, they really don’t care about any of that. They just want to see a great movie, and I don’t think they make the same distinction we do, as to where they see it. Watching a movie is an emotional experience, and we have a bunch of business metrics we attach to that emotional experience. But the consumers don’t feel any of those. To me, cinema is not a movie or a TV screen, and it’s not a seat in a building versus one in your living room. It’s the art of motion pictures.”
Despite the Netflix boss’ passion for the art of movies, it’s no secret that the streaming giant analyzes the precise demographic data in order to produce and program content their consumers want to see. House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, was a massively successful result of this kind of information analytic (and resulting talent investment). I wonder whether Fukunaga has been interested to explore the science behind the Beasts' viewership. He claims he hasn’t. “Demographic breakdown is not the measure of success with moviemaking, so I’m not too interested in what Netflix can know versus regular cinema receipts. The way I measure my movie’s success is, sure, the numbers, and critical response but also longevity, whether people are still talking about it in a few years.”
As a filmmaker, it’s hard to argue with Fukunaga’s conviction regards the experience of seeing a movie theatrically. In an interview with The Guardian around the time of Beasts’ release, he eloquently states: “I know for a fact that the best way to watch the movie is in a cinema. It’s just the way it was made. It’s best for the sound, best for the picture and the best way to feel the energy in the room. The magnified emotional experience by sharing it with other people is best done in the cinema.”
But Netflix’s ability to give profitable access to a global audience that just would not get to the film in the theater is equally hard to argue with. Sure, it may be an unparalleled experience to hear a musical performance in Royal Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall, but does that mean the music isn’t powerful on the radio or an iPhone through headphones? Surely not.
As a filmmaker whose first movie also featured African kids and, despite a wide release, had to fight for screen time in cinemas, I can easily relate to Fukunaga and Sarandos’ feelings about the online release. There’s a curious mix of pleasure to Google your film and find illegal copies on YouTube with thousands of hits. Yes, someone else made money from people seeing your work, but they’re still watching it. The story’s being told, and your movie’s being seen.
Sarandos’ vision for movies to be made accessible simultaneously to online as well as theatrical audiences feels ultimately pragmatic, driven by a genuine passion for storytelling as much as data-driven profit. Talking to Variety about Beasts, he said: “I feel like it’s incumbent on us to make and distribute movies that are so good that theater owners will want to book them. Every single bit of media in the world has been impacted by the Internet — books, television, music; everything, except for the window of theatrical movies.”
Will theater owners and Hollywood get onboard with him, as Fukunaga has with Beasts, or will it be left to the pirates to rule the waves of online movie releasing? For now, that remains to be seen.
This article was originally posted in Moviepilot Magazine – Annual Review where we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment.
Cary Fukunaga is a film director, writer, and cinematographer. His feature film Beasts of No Nation can be seen on Netflix. / Debs Paterson is a film director and writer best-known for her feature film Africa United.