‘Atlantics’: Netflix’s Aggressive Africa Push Continues With Acquisition of Cannes Grand Prix Winner

Netflix has signaled that Africa holds massive untapped potential for their expansion -- and even Thierry Fremaux recognizes the continent is about to have a filmmaking explosion.
Mati Diop (2-R) with cast arrive for the screening of 'Atlantics' (Atlantique) during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 16 May 2019. The movie is presented in the Official Competition of the festival which runs from 14 to 25 May.Atlantics Premiere - 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 16 May 2019
Mati Diop (2-R) with cast arrive for the screening of 'Atlantics' (Atlantique) during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, May 2019

Netflix has acquired worldwide rights (excluding China, Benelux, Switzerland, Russia, France) to French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop’s feature debut, the award winning “Atlantics,” which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Grand Prix.

The film’s Cannes premiere earned Diop, niece of the late, great Senegalese cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambéty, a spot in the history books: she became the first woman of African descent with a film in the 72-year-old festival’s Competition section, and has proven to be one of the biggest breakouts at Cannes this year.

Previously titled “Fire Next Time” (although not based on James Baldwin’s famous essay collection of the same name), the film was in rare company. Diop and French-Malian Ladj Ly were the only filmmakers of African descent represented in Competition at the world’s most prestigious film festival this year.

The acquisition represents Netflix’s ongoing aggressive push into the African continent — a still relatively untapped source of talent and content. The news comes just months after the streaming giant announced its first original African series “Queen Sono,” starring veteran South African actress Pearl Thusi (“Quantico”), as well as “Mama K’s Team 4,” its first African animated original. There was also February’s series order of the South African teen drama “Blood & Water,” to be directed by Nosipho Dumisa, the helmer behind the buzzy 2018 SXSW thriller “Number 37.”


Earlier this year, Netflix announced its acquisition of South African drama “Shadow,” which was released globally as a Netflix Original on March 8. And finally, at TIFF 2018, the streamer acquired Nigerian drama “Lionheart,” the directorial debut of Nollywood (Nigerian cinema) superstar actress Genevieve Nnaji. Also picked up as a Netflix Original movie, the film was released worldwide on January 4, 2019.

These aggressive moves by Netflix shouldn’t come as a surprise. In December, the company signaled that it planned to get serious about ordering/acquiring original series and films from the African continent, created by Africans — a step which is in line with its global ambitions.

Even Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux recognizes the potential, telling Variety ahead of this year’s event, “There is an exciting new generation coming out of the African continent and women are making half of [those works], if not more. We’re sensing a simmering in Africa. Women are are driving it and Cannes is its arena.”

Indeed. In fact, the last two years alone have been noteworthy for the festival, with Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am Not a Witch,” Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki,” and Diop’s “Atlantics,” all feature debuts by women of African descent, premiering at the festival.

"Les Misérables" director Ladj Ly
“Les Misérables” director Ladj Ly

Meanwhile, French-Malian filmmaker Ladj Ly’s feature debut “Les Miserables,” which also premiered in competition and picked up a jury prize, was acquired by Amazon. Two Cannes award winners picked up by primarily streaming platforms is certainly noteworthy, especially at a time when the festival negotiates its relationship with non-traditional distribution platforms like Netflix, who also acquired Cannes Critics’ Week Award Winner “I Lost My Body,” Jérémy Clapin’s animated feature debut.

Release dates and strategies for “Atlantics,” “Les Miserables” and “I Lost My Body” have yet to be set, and will likely be closely observed.

Fionnuala Jamison negotiated “Atlantics” for mk2 Films on behalf of the filmmakers. And Carole Baraton did the same for “I Lost My Body” for Charades on behalf of the filmmakers.

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