How to Resuscitate ‘Beasts of No Nation’


Gregg Kilday | The Hollywood Reporter (This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine)

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.”

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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.)

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