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Is Netflix vs Cannes a Dispute Over the Future of Cinema?

Netflix is actively and self-servingly restricting the platforms films can occupy, but it’s not the only one grumbling about Cannes’s fussy rules

Last year Netflix arrived to Cannes Film Festival with two high-profile titles – Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (both 2017) – which, per the company’s policy, would not be eligible to show in French theatres (French law states that 36 months must elapse between a film’s theatrical run and introduction to a Select Video on Demand (SVOD) platform like Netflix). Cannes agreed to allow the two films in the competition that year but warned they probably wouldn't do so in the future. This year, Cannes has followed through: five Netflix titles, including Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, will not be shown in the festival which begins today.

Speaking to Variety, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos mocked Cannes’s decision as being as technologically out-of-step as the festival’s ban on red carpet selfies (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings attempted a gentler tone last week, saying ‘sometimes we make mistakes’). For Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux, the theatrical experience is a cultural question: ‘The specificity of France is that it asks Cannes to only put films in Competition that are free to be shown theatrically. The consequence of the chronology means it comes out three years later. Sure, it’s absurd […] but for now, we are where we are.’

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Bong Joon-ho, Okja, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Bong Joon-ho, Okja, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Predictably, both sides in this dispute are eliding key context (it’s always best to be wary of any corporation claiming decisions favouring its bottom line are really ones looking out for its consumers). Note Netflix’s language in a letter to its shareholders: ‘The festival adopted a new rule that means if a film is in competition at Cannes, it cannot be watched on Netflix in France for the following three years. We would never want to do that to our French members.’ Do that to… Netflix is a custodian of the people. But if the company’s primary goal is to get ‘arthouse-leaning’ films to the largest number of people who wouldn’t otherwise have access anytime soon – those in locations without specialist cinemas for instance – then presumably Netflix should have agreed to screen its films in the non-competition sections of the festival (a proposal Cannes offered) which would allow for a day-and-date release, and allow Netflix coverage for its films.

Omitted from Netflix’s virtuous self-portrait is the company’s broader relationship to festivals, which, to festival directors, reads as a fairly opportunistic hijacking of those platforms for promotional purposes. ‘Netflix does not see value in the existing domestic film-community infrastructure to audiences,’ an anonymous film festival director complained to Business Insider, ‘but they seem to want the credibility that this infrastructure lends to their prestige projects without having to fully participate in the community.’ In France, legislation was introduced which would require Netflix to pay a 2% tax on subscription revenue, which would be plugged back into the budget of the CNC, the state body which finances many French productions. Netflix contested a similar law in Germany.

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Thierry Fremaux, Director of Cannes Film Festival. Courtesy: Cannes Film Festival

Thierry Frémaux, Artistic Director of Cannes Film Festival. Courtesy: Cannes Film Festival

In the US, Netflix is notorious among bookers for not allowing theatres to screen their films. Not the multiplex chains who refused to book their day-and-date (released online and in theatres at the same time) films, but the numerous independent and arthouse theatres who’ve asked to do so. There are inconsistent exceptions (limited big-city releases of especially prestigious titles, documentary bookings for community organization screenings), but the theatrical option has largely been taken off the table. ‘We tried for years to program titles that debut on Netflix, regardless of whether they're already streaming or not,’ says Chris Hemel, president of Columbus, Ohio’s Gateway Film Center, which has attempted to screen Netflix films including Mudbound, The Meyerowitz Stories and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father. ‘We've reached out directly to Netflix representatives and typically they are completely non-responsive. When they use third-party booking agents, which in many cases we have relationships with, I think the agents really try to go to bat for us to try to allow us to book the films, with no success.’

Sarandos is cleverly moving the goalposts when declaring that ‘we are choosing to be about the future of cinema. If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine.’ That ‘future,’ as Netflix envisions it, is now, as the company actively works to make the theatrical presentation of a film a charming but fundamentally anachronistic pursuit. For Netflix this isn’t some abstract argument about changing definitions of ‘cinema,’ as Sarandos tries to paint it, but an active restriction of how many platforms it can occupy.

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Director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film Roma, will not sceen at Cannes this year.

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film Roma, will not sceen at Cannes this year.

For his part, Frémaux may sound more credible (if almost laughably French) when saying things like ‘my responsibility is cinema,’ but what he’s alluding to when talking about changing the rules is much more specific, a reform process that’s been in the works for a while. There’s been increasing grumbling from French distributors about the many long embargoes currently placed on films in the country; not just the 36-month window that applies to subscription video on demand (SVOD) services like Netflix, but, for instance, the four months between the start of theatrical release and any VOD availability. It’s not quite accurate for Frémaux to paint the dispute as one solely between Netflix and Cannes; the former’s complaints aren’t as exceptional as the latter would have them be. Buried within Frémaux’s defence is an assumption that the platform Cannes provides then leads to healthy theatrical runs in France for the kind of films it champions: determining whether this is actually true would require a long-term review of French box office returns over the decades vis-a-vis the various technological disruptions Netflix represents.

The dispute is less between two futures of cinema and is more a particularly localized powerplay. Despite its commitment to a rigidly defined, arguably conservative roster of Great Arthouse Masters, Cannes deserves less ire for its position than it has received. Yet, legislation changing theatrical windows is almost certainly coming. Netflix’s ongoing, quiet aversion to allowing theatrical booking (unlike Amazon, which has actively expanded in the field) is not just a fight with French legislation generally or Cannes specifically, it is at odds with theatres around the world. Whomever is to win out in this squabble in the long run, this conflict shouldn’t be read as a stand in for the larger question: whether film’s theatrical experience will or will not survive.

Vadim Rizov (@vrizov) is the managing editor of Filmmaker Magazine.

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