Beasts of No Nation is a tough sell. A bleak tale about the effects of war on African child soldiers, it offers little in the way of optimism. It’s biggest star is Idris Elba, who is beloved for his work on The Wire and Luther, but hardly a Tom Cruise-level household name. At more than two hours it’s a little long for an indie film, particularly one that devotes many of those minutes to unflinching scenes of death and civil war. Yet, this is the movie Netflix is using to plant its theatrical-release flag—and pissing off theater chains in the process.
No one is more aware of this than the director, Cary Joji Fukunaga.
“To choose a movie like this as their flagship is a pretty gutsy move,” Fukunaga says. “It’s going to be a hard ask to get people to tune in. [Netflix] could’ve picked something far safer. At the same time, they have the enviable position of being able to put out whatever they want because they don’t necessarily need the box office, they just need people to value it.”
They have the enviable position of being able to put out whatever they want because they don't necessarily need the box office, they just need people to value it. Cary Fukunaga, on Netflix
And value it they have. Beasts of No Nation has been universally praised by critics, and while Netflix may not need the box office, the box office may not entirely want the streaming service either. The movie is getting a very limited theatrical run, something Fukunaga requested when Netflix acquired the movie for a reported $12 million, but it’s simultaneously hitting the streaming service today, something that caused major theater chains to boycott the film, furious about wasting promotion or screens on a movie people could watch at home.
No bother. The theatrical run will allow cinephiles to see the movie as Fukunaga intended while also making him—and his cast, including impressive young newcomer Abraham Attah—eligible for awards when Oscar season comes. Not that those things matter to Fukunaga.
“For me it’s not about the awards, it’s about the experience in the cinema,” he says. “That was our big thing. We said, ‘We’re not interested if you’re just going to have a four-wall cinema so you qualify for awards. We will do this if you really treat this like a movie.'” Christie Hemm Klok/WIREDBut Fukunaga is no cinema purist. He’s made indies, directed the first season of True Detective for HBO, and now he’s distributing his passion project with a streaming service. If anything, he’s part of that wave of directors willing to take their wares anywhere they can do their best work—a wave that includes David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Jason Reitman. So what’s the secret to success in the age of multiple platforms? Fukunaga has some ideas.Be Willing to Go DIY if Studios Won’t PlayThe story of Beasts goes all the way back to 2005, when Fukunaga first read Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, the book on which his screenplay is based. At the time, he was meeting with Focus Features about optioning his screenplay for Sin Nombre and the studio ended up optioning both projects—but Beasts never happened. “I was surprised because I didn’t think that would be something the studio would want to do, Fukunaga says. “Ultimately I was right, because they didn’t.” He and his producer, Amy Kaufman, renewed the option for the book in 2011 and found their own financing for the movie. They finished it, almost nine years after Fukunaga read the book, and showed it to a couple ofstudios—indcluding Focus, which still had right of first refusal—before going to Netflix. “Their offer wasn’t a no-brainer initially because we wanted the movie to be seen in movie theaters,” the director says. “That was my plan and intention for it. But they were very generous in saying, ‘No, we’ll do a theatrical campaign along with our promotion for it on the streaming service.’”Love Theaters, But Remember That Everything Ends Up on a Smaller ScreenFukunaga wants as many people as possible to see his new film on the big screen. He notes, rightly, that there are nuances that might be lost on a laptop. (He makes a similar point about the subtleties Mia Wasikowska brought to her performance in his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre.) But he insists that directors working today have to be willing to make things for smaller screens—and to accept that their movies will one day end up on them. “Directors are ultimately hustlers; they’re always just trying to find their way to not just get the stories they want to tell made, but also to find the next people they want to work with,” he says. “In a day when most people watch content after it’s existed in the cinema, that secondary part of the movies being experienced is essentially the same as being on TV, as being streamed. It’s perception.”Convince the New Streaming Players to Get Into the Theater BusinessFrom video-rental stores to cable TV, Netflix has disrupted more than one industry. This week, as they add theatrical chains to that list, Fukunaga suggests that instead of trying to shake down the AMCs and Regals of the world, they just start their own. “I want to convince Netflix to open up their own cinemas and show their content on the big screen,” he says. “I’m sure people would love to see their favorite shows from the network on the big screen. There’s enough content they could run it all day long. There’s so many cinemas that are just empty around New York, L.A., San Francisco. Just do it. Get an on-the-ground presence; don’t just exist in the cloud.” Stick With Cable…MaybeNow that Beasts of No Nation is out in the world, Fukunaga knows that he can likely take his talents anywhere. “I’m pretty fortunate that I can move between things pretty freely,” he says. “Nothing’s guaranteed, movies still fall apart, but the doors will open if I knock.” So will he go back to True Detective, the show that put him on the map and won him his first Emmy? Um, maybe. “I’m always technically involved as an executive producer,” he says, “but no one’s really asked me to do anything.” Dear HBO: Pick up the phone. Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.