Wednesday, October 21, 2015

‘Beasts of No Nation,’ captive of no platform

AS ITS subject matter and visual intensity have been laid out in critics’ descriptions, the Cary Joji Fukunaga film “Beasts of No Nation,” a tale of childhood and war, is harrowing and groundbreaking enough on its own.

What movie exhibitors and the various Nostradami of the motion picture industry are concerned about has less to do with the film itself and everything to do with how you get to watch it — and other equally daring projects in the future.

When it opened theatrically on Oct. 16, “Beasts” grossed $50,699 for a theater average of $1,635, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But the movie moguls, chieftains of a business model that’s seen more unchallenging days, seem to feel that regardless of how well it did, “Beasts” may be a problematic symbol, signaling as it does a tipping point for movies: the point when the legacy studios heard unavoidable footsteps ... the footsteps of technology they finally couldn’t get away from.

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Writing Oct. 16 in The Daily Beast, New York film critic and journalist Nick Schager knows the size and impact of what’s at stake, calling it “[a] risky proposition ... a dual-platform approach that functions as the biggest salvo so far in a burgeoning battle between the old world and the new.”

“Beasts,” Fukunaga’s acclaimed adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of a young boy caught up in a civil war in West Africa, breaks new ground for Netflix, the company that bought worldwide rights to the film in March for a reported $12 million. When the film — Netflix’s first foray into movies — opened, it was made available both theatrically and through Netflix’s streaming service ... on the same day.

“In theory,” Schager says, “this sounds like a win-win for consumers, who will have multiple venues through which to access eagerly anticipated big-budget movies. But for Netflix, it remains unclear if this path leads to a brighter future, or a dead end.”

BUT SCHAGER overstates the risk for Netflix’s bold gambit, overlooks the evolution of the consumer, and underplays the existing and historical conditions that made taking that risk necessary. He writes: “The company purchased the rights to Beasts ... assuming that it could recoup such a cost from a combination of ticket sales and new subscriptions. Yet that assumption was immediately complicated by the country’s four biggest theater chains (AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Carmike), which in May uniformly decided that they wouldn’t show Beasts.”

Schager continues: “With theaters coveting their exclusive windows to show first-run films before they hit home video platforms — a brief period of time that shrinks with every passing year — it’s no surprise that exhibitor conglomerates would balk at Netflix’s tactic, given that it will inevitably help render going out to the movies a superfluous (and experience-wise, superior) luxury.”

That’s nothing new. The deathbed status of theatrical movies has been alleged before, in the dawn of the VCR era, and again with the coming of DVDs and the increasingly sophisticated players and increasingly larger screens on which to watch them. It’s understandable that the Big Four movie exhibitors would balk at jeopardizing their own short-term self-interests. But let’s be clear, their Chicken Little, sky-is-falling act is one we’ve heard before.

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The argument that streaming technology renders the traditional movie experience a “superfluous luxury” is tired and unconvincing, partly because of what the traditional movie experience has incrementally done, over the years, to endanger itself. When tickets are $10 a pop, popcorn and concessions are $10 more, and the costs of parking and gas are in their own realms of the astronomical, the magic of first-run movies is already priced like a luxury — and has been for years.

The very fact that, as Schager mentions, exhibitors’ first-run exclusivity is “a brief period of time that shrinks with every passing year” should tell us, like nothing else can, exactly where this is going in the future.

You'd best believe Reed Hastings knows. The founder and CEO of Netflix understands two things: one, that the entertainment future will accommodate both first-run theatrical releases and simultaneous streaming of those releases; and, two (as much as the gatekeeper exhibitors wish it weren’t true), the 24/7, devices-everywhere consumer has been made entitled to expect nothing less.

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AND WHY NOT? The demands of a workplace culture that kicked 9-to-5 to the curb years ago; the convenience of time-shifters like TiVo; the steady improvement of TV receiver technology (make way for 4K, the new high-def gold standard) and the enormity of available options and price points are combining to put the consumer in the power position like never before. And keep her there.

And the choice of seeing a first-run film in a movie theater or at home — and possibly in a setting that amounts to being a private movie theater — is one that speaks to the ubiquity of entertainment experience the public’s been conditioned to expect.

That’s what Hastings gets and what the double-barreled, theatrical-streaming rollout of “Beasts of No Nation” means: To the public, ultimately, it’s not an either/or proposition, it’s a both/and proposition. Or it will be.

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The Big Four’s decision not to show “Beasts of No Nation” in their theaters indicates a reflexive nod toward self-preservation. That much is obvious. It also shows something else: Fear. The boycotting exhibitors showed solidarity, of course, but they must have also been more than a little afraid of what might have happened if “Beasts” opened wide — say on 1,000 or 1,200 screens and on Netflix ... and consumers actually liked having that moviegoing choice. It would have turned a treasured, proven business model inside out. And they know it.

Schager goes on: “[ ... T]he future suggested by Beasts isn’t one in which films concurrently open on big and small screens alike. Rather, it’s one in which streaming services become so enormous and ubiquitous—not to mention cheaper and more convenient than a trip to your local multiplex—that they become the preferred, and thus dominant, means of cinematic consumption.”

Well, Nick, that future’s already here. Enormity’s a relative thing, but Netflix is already cheaper than going to a regular theater. A monthly Netflix subscription now costs $10 for new subscribers; see how far that gets you at your neighborhood omniplex. Point to Netflix. Anything that lets you comfortably stay in the theater you already live in is convenient by definition. Point to streaming services in general. And watching movies via streaming is no less ubiquitous than television in the 21st century already is. Game, set, match.

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WHETHER STREAMING services do, in fact, “become the preferred, dominant means of cinematic consumption” is anyone’s guess. That’s what the consumer deserves to have a hand in. If they’re given a choice. People gravitate toward their preferences over time. Just because those preferences aren’t readily apparent is no reason to pre-emptively eliminate them.

There’s a downbeat aspect to Schager’s ending, one that really isn’t deserved: “As the biggest development in an accessibility versus appropriateness conflict that’s just getting started, the Beasts-Netflix marriage suggests that there’s much to gain from instantly having great new films at one’s fingertips, but also—in doing a disservice to the experience of watching grand, majestic movies as they were truly intended to be seen — something lost as well.”

It doesn’t have to be like that: so stark, so zero-sum-game ... so either/or. At the end of the day, and decades into a breathless expansion of consumer technology, seeing movies “as they were truly intended to be seen” doesn’t always mean seeing them the same way as everyone else. There’s more than one way to watch a “grand, majestic” movie, just like there’s more than one way to make one.

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A few days after “Beasts” came out in a measly 31 theaters in 30 U.S. cities, analysts and observers were saying it “flopped.” But to say it “flopped” in theaters is to buy into analog-era language for a strategy rooted in the digital era. It's applying traditional movie-release mentality to a release that never intended to depend on the traditional movie-release model in the first place.

And saying it “flopped,” in the conventional sense, is to ignore the film's opening on a relative handful of screens. Thirty-one theaters in 30 cities? A movie of your grocery list would get wider distribution.

Nerdrrage, commenting in The Hollywood Reporter, cut to the crux of Netflix’s strategy: “[...T]he fact that we don't need to watch everything right now is why we need streaming. A movie like Beasts of No Nation would be one of those movies that plays only in a few arty theaters, and by the time you get around to going, it's been bumped in favor of some franchise blockbuster thing or a movie with a big-name star.

“But now that it's on Netflix, I feel no particular urgency to see it. I could see it a year from now, if that suits my schedule. What movie theater is going to run it for a year? Or ten years? Or forever?”

And Lee Burnett, commenting in THR, makes another, thunderously valid point: “I also wonder if a hard-hitting, adult film set in Africa with an all black cast would ever have been distributed fairly anyway. [T]oo often these movies are set up to fail with limited releasing and a censorious attitude that they must think small in terms of distribution. [M]any who would enjoy the films simply don't know they exist, let alone have easy access to them.”

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WHEN THE VCR ruled the roost, when the DVD was more exotic than everyday, when home theaters were very rare and high-def didn’t exist, movie-industry seers thought the end of days was nigh then, too. Back then, like right now, the big challenge to watching movies in their grand, majestic original houses of worship was ... television.

Nothing’s really changed except the exhibitors’ fear factor. And the technology. The defining battle of movie experiences, the conflict Schager says is “just getting started,” really isn’t. It’s been around for years.

What “Beasts of No Nation” represents, besides its own excellence as a thematically courageous motion picture, is a moviegoing future that’s a prisoner of no technology, a captive of no platform. In today’s multichannel universe, crowded with options, that’s not just the way it should be. Sooner or later, it’s the way it’s going to be.

Image credits: “Beasts of No Nation” poster, Netflix logo: © 2015 Netflix. Hastings: Ryan Anson/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

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