We had expected 2015 to push the day-and-date discussion further, but not that the two big discussion pieces would be Netflix and Amazon originals. In October, Netflix released Beasts of No Nation in US theatres, and at Curzon cinemas in the UK. At the same time they made it available to their subscribers globally free of charge. Since this violated the 90-day window, the four largest US exhibitors boycotted the release, limiting it to small and independent theatres. Netflix reported an online success, but box office results were abysmal.
While Beasts of No Nation was critically acclaimed, its advertising and subject matter – child soldiers – made audiences expect something serious, violent, depressing and entirely inappropriate for a fun night out. For this type of film, most people also don’t care about screen size and nuanced image quality. But even if they do, it is probably safe to assume that any Netflix original will look good on a living room screen.
All of this considered, it is a miracle that Beasts did any business in theatres at all; indeed it is obvious that the goal of the theatrical release was not to make money. It did succeed in drawing attention to the premiere, legitimising Netflix as a studio, qualifying the film for awards, marketing the OTT service, and perhaps in creating an event feel.
By comparison, Amazon gave Spike Lee’s musical Chi-Raq a limited release in cinemas on December 4, 2015, for EST and TVOD on December 29, and free for Prime subscribers on February 4, 2016. The film was critically well-received, and has grossed a respectable USD 2,6M (as of January 14, US only). In its titular Chicago it did phenomenal business. Across all theatres in its opening weekend Chi-Raq had a $3900 per-screen average. In Chicago reports estimated a $15000 per-screen average for 22 screens, demonstrating again that film distribution is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Even if Chi-Raq will make most of its money online, the theatrical release can perhaps be viewed as more or less self-financing advertising campaign, and certainly a success.
These new “global majors” (see our 2016 report) entering into day-and-date experimentation could actually help more traditional industry players gain headway on window negotiations – purely on a kind of “better the devil you know” principle. One thing the panelists of our 2016 visions panel (video forthcoming) were all in agreement on was that a blind defence of traditional release patterns is hurting the industry. Not all films can be released in cinemas, and not all that are should be released the exact same way.