By Michael Roddy
VENICE (Reuters) - Venice may be the world's oldest film festival, but this year it is pioneering what may well become the future of cinema as Netflix screens two films here, one of them its first feature and a contender for the top prize.
"Beasts of No Nation" stars Idris Elba -- who previously portrayed Nelson Mandela in the biopic "Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom" -- as an African warlord who uses young boys as child soldiers.
Billed as a "Netflix Original Film", it is based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala and is directed by American Cary Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre", "Jane Eyre").
Another Netflix film being shown out of competition is the documentary "Winter on Fire" about the 2014 Maidan protests that brought down the Ukrainian government.
The Internet entertainment company's big-time presence at one of Europe's most prestigious festivals has drawn a lot of attention.
In some quarters Netflix is seen as a challenge to the traditional movie distribution business, particularly the multiplexes which normally might pick up a film starring Elba, who is frequently touted as possible James Bond material.
"What's interesting about Netflix being here is that like Amazon, like other companies that aren't necessarily known for original content, they're really beginning to put something out, they're expanding themselves," Jay Weissberg, European-based critic for trade publication Variety, told Reuters.
"Is it a game changer? It's difficult to tell at this point."
Netflix, through a public relations representative present at the festival, declined a request to comment to Reuters on the company's reasons for launching the films in Venice.
But the directors for the two Netflix films here said they saw great potential in getting their work to larger audiences through Netflix.
The company reported in July that it had added 2.4 million customers in international markets in the quarter, taking its total to more than 65 million users worldwide.
"Of course I want everyone to see it on the big screen in a dark room with people they don't know and watch it from beginning to end, uninterrupted by anything in their home or anything else," director Fukunaga said in an interview.
"But, ultimately, thousands of people are going to be watching it in a different way.
"And what you want in the end is more eyes on the story and the people who have gone to the cinema will hopefully still go to the cinema and the people who maybe never would have gone to the cinema will now have it right in front of them on Netflix."
Evgeny Afineevsky, director of the Ukrainian documentary "Winter on Fire", also said that Netflix would allow his film to reach a much larger audience.
"As a filmmaker in one moment I am able to share my story with millions and millions of people," he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Mike Davidson, Francis Maguire and Duarte Garrido; Editing by Mark Heinrich)