Saturday, October 28, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Beasts of No Nation" (2015)

Scene from Beasts of No Nation
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Directed By: Cary Fukunaga
Written By: Cary Fukunaga (Screenplay), Uzodinma Iweala (Novel)
Starring: Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor
Genre: Drama, War
Running Time: 137 minutes
Summary: A drama based on the experiences of Agu, a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed African country.

The Movie

As another Oscar season heats up, there is one particular debate that once again emerges: will Netflix ever get into the Best Picture field? Amazon Studios has not only been nominated for Oscars as of 2017, but won acting awards (Best Actor - Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea). Meanwhile, the studio that defined binge watching has been doing its best to be the digital HBO; a streaming service that caters to all needs. On the plus side, 2017 looks to have content that is better than usual at getting prestige attention. For instance, there's acclaimed dramas First They Killed My Father and Mudbound. There's also the latest advent of "Adam Sandler is a serious actor" with The Meyerowitz Stories. To say the least, their roster has more than enough noteworthy talents to make them at least competitive. 

However, there was a time when Netflix seemed like even more of a dark horse than they do in 2017. In 2015, they released director Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, which wasn't just their big Oscar movie, it was one of the first major movies from them. It should be noted that this is far from the first film released by Netflix, but it was the first to gain an attention beyond cult audiences and people who dedicated countless hours to finding obscure gambits in their lousy search menus. Beasts of No Nation marked a shift for the studio in that it came built with the Oscar hype, especially since Amazon Studios had yet to have a genuine prestige movie and the odds of a streaming service getting nominated seem dismal. On one hand, Netflix had been dominating the documentary fields in the surrounding years, but nothing compared to their big push for Best Picture.

It was a film that had plenty of intrigue behind it while also setting the bar/curse for which the company's upcoming films would face. The film received critical acclaim, even earning praise for Idris Elba's Oscar-worthy performance. There was a lot to enjoy about a film from former True Detective filmmaker Fukunaga. However, Netflix experienced deja vu as they entered into a familiar tiff with the awards circuit. Much like their early bids for Emmys and Golden Globes, the company had to contextualize what its media was since it was so against the norms of the time. Would Beasts of No Nation be considered a movie if it never had a regular release? Would it even qualify? It started the debate over quality versus format, of which Netflix hasn't quite won the battle for yet.

The Campaign

There was plenty of buzz leading up to the film's October 16. 2015 release. There was the tense first trailer which showed Elba talking to a child soldier, played by Abraham Attah. The buzz was already building for this tense movie from Fukunaga, and the screenings leading up to this date were just as encouraging. If one had to judge the film's potential based on what was said, Beasts of No Nation would be seen as a surefire hit. Elba had enough clout behind him to launch a guaranteed Oscar campaign. Even breakout star Attah had some charm and charisma to a very bleak role that was as challenging for him as the film's dark tone would be for audiences. The only issue is that while the film had everything going for it in terms of quality, it had to face another reality: it wasn't quite following the Oscars campaign game properly.

Some could argue that what it did was try to reinvent the game. A general rule for qualification is that a film must play in theaters in Los Angeles or New York for a week in order to qualify. It's a strategy that Amazon Studios has used successfully by making a theater-first release that would appear online in a few weeks or months. Netflix overshot this idea and went straight for the service that they trusted, which was to release it on streaming services first. This would create conflicts regarding how an Oscar-qualifying movie should initially be released. Overall, the choice to release it on streaming services was smarter, as it got the film a chance to reach a wider audience (a reported 69 million subscriber base), but it would still run into issues with cinema's equivalent of conservatism: the theater chains who didn't wish to compete with the voodoo economics of the internet.

The streaming service would never release numbers for how many people actually watched the movie. However, it still achieved a limited release that would be considered a complete failure financially. It makes sense, given Netflix's home availability. The bigger issue with its release is that, outside of "agnostic" companies like The Alamo Drafthouse, the film was on the verge of being largely boycotted. The big four theater companies AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Carmike were mad that Netflix wouldn't honor the traditional release that allowed theaters to play the film 90 days before any other release. As a result, these companies would boycott the film, which would end up hurting any chance of it getting a significant release for those wishing to experience the film in a traditional manner. 

The boycott was a conversation that would overshadow the film. It helped to raise a debate that still lingers among streaming services and theater chains; as well as Academy guidelines. What is an Oscar-qualifying movie in 2015? The medium has evolved at such great extents that it would be difficult to pinpoint one being the "correct" way to release a movie. With that said, the ability to judge a movie by a theatrical release has been the heart of Oscar qualifications for decades now. It didn't help that, at least in traditional eyes, the film was also seen as a box office bomb, of which always leaves a negative vibe for Oscar voters. It may not totally remove a film from conversation, but it definitely creates a unwanted taboo around a film's quality. Beasts of No Nation would take on other controversies upon Oscar Nomination Day, but its reason for failure was in Netflix's otherwise ingenious release scheduling. 

The Payoff

On one hand, the film wasn't shut out of awards season entirely. Elba would receiving acting nominations from both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild. It's the type of justification that made what followed seem a bit more egregious. Beasts of No Nation not only failed to get Elba a nomination, but its whole campaign failed to get a single nomination. While Netflix would walk away with a few documentary nominations, their first big foray into prestige movie season was a failure. It's tough to speculate how much of that was from the controversial release style and not the film itself, but it could also be that the film wasn't the most accessible story to begin with. Stories about African child soldiers that are super depressing rarely are. Still, there was a bigger conflict that hid this more logical reason for the film's failure.

The only thing bigger at The Oscars in 2016 than the awards themselves was the return of Oscars So White. Following a rallying cry the previous year, this Twitter campaign suggested that The Academy was racist for only nominating white actors. In the previous year, they held up Selma as an exemplary film of diversity. In 2016, Beasts of No Nation shared the stage with Straight Outta Compton, showing that there was indeed quality work out there for non-white artists that deserved to be recognized. Many saw Elba's snub as one of the biggest reflections of this atrocity, and that ironically Straight Outta Compton's only Oscar nomination was for a screenplay... by white people. The Academy has since come out and done hard work to change their reputation in the following year. However, it was over for Beasts of No Nation, which didn't have the zeal that even Amazon Studios would have the following year with Manchester By the Sea

It's tough to see Netflix really ever leaving the Failed Oscar Campaigns column unless they play ball The Academy's way. I personally am fine with them releasing their content online, as it provides audiences more of an opportunity to see it. However, even their marketing for Oscar-worthy movies is a bit lousy. Not all versions of their app promote the big movies in ways that will get audiences' attention. In fact, there's good chances that you aren't aware that one of their bigger Oscar pushes (First They Killed My Father) was released awhile back. With exception to Okja and maybe The Meyerowitz Stories, it's hard to talk about any of these movies because they get less attention than their TV department, which has bombarded every corner of the internet with Stranger Things marketing. As much as it's an issue of distribution, it's also an issue of awareness, which the studio needs to deftly work on if it ever wants to be taken seriously.

For now, the debate on whether Netflix deserves to compete for Oscars will still be up for debate. Beasts of No Nation set the ironic template for the studio that hasn't been broken since. With the company releasing more potential Oscar films this year, it will be difficult to keep them all afloat. Still, there's signs that maybe marketing for these movies in general isn't in total desperation. Next month marks the release of Mudbound, which has gotten the acclaim behind it, and now it only needs a worthwhile campaign to elevate it. Hopefully lessons will be taken from Beasts of No Nation and that there won't be a narrative that's overthrown by boycotts. Does a film that plays first on streaming deserve Oscar consideration? It's a good question, and one that may be answered before this Oscar season ends. 

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