Colossally rich online juggernaut Netflix entered the feature film business this week without a single movie theater (of course) — and without any of the normal movie studio worries either. Netflix is so confident a creative enabler that instead of relying on blockbuster-style glitz, the company launched its feature film era with a stark depiction of war-torn Africa and its child soldiers — a film called Beasts Of No Nation, by director Cary Fukunaga. (Iconoclasts clearly love the online opportunity — Amazon made a similar statement with its innovative Emmy-winning TV show, Transparent— not perhaps typical popular focus group fare.)
In choosing an unusual entry point, Netflix milks the critical advantage of its position. Netflix knows what its customers like. So where Hollywood must spend small fortunes on focus groups and marketing efforts to determine an audience for each of its films — and do it all over for the next one — Netflix (and, like it, Amazon) can introduce its films to exactly the audience that has been predetermined by its massive data operation to appreciate it. That means a director like Cary Fukunaga is free — free to make creative decisions that directors relying on the roulette of the box office just can’t. It’s a profitable creative freedom modeled on the iconic American directors of the 1970s — see Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood — and perfected in this century by HBO. In fact Fukunaga made his name directing Season 1 of True Detective, a giant hit for HBO when it debuted.
Here’s the book, btw: