View from Cannes: Who needs who more in L’Affaire de Netflix?

Over the past few years, Netflix and Amazon have been taking it in turns to dominate headlines at the Cannes film festival.

Two years ago, it was Netflix that made its grand entrance, not with any films in official selection, but with chief content officer Ted Sarandos speaking in the Marche du Film’s NEXT conference and being roundly heckled by local press. The following year, Amazon Studios was the talk of the town, with an impressive five titles in the Cannes line-up, prompting festival director Thierry Fremaux to describe the company’s executives as ‘film buffs’.

This year, it was Netflix’s turn to steal the spotlight, with two titles selected for competition – Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Okja and US indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories – but found itself cast more as moustache-swirling villain than ’cause celebre’.

The difference in treatment is down to the two streaming giants’ different approaches to theatrical releasing. Amazon actively seeks partners to theatrically release its films, at least in key territories, whereas Netflix always pushes for an online release.

The prospect of Cannes competition titles streaming on Netflix rather than playing in cinemas appalled the French film industry, in particular theatre owners, which comprise around half the seats on the Cannes film festival board. France has strict media chronology laws, which prevent films from streaming online until 36 months after theatrical release, and also requires a portion of film revenues to be invested into local production. While Netflix has financed French-language series, including two seasons of Marseille, it has never submitted to investment quotas.

In the run-up to Cannes, the streaming giant attempted to appease the industry by saying it would arrange limited French theatrical distribution for Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, but a deal was never reached. Cannes then backtracked by saying that from 2018, all films selected for competition must commit to a French theatrical release.

It was an interesting debate because of course there is no guarantee that all the films that play in Cannes competition will ever find a French theatrical distributor and there is also the question of whether a film like Okja would ever have been made without Netflix. But the French industry made its feelings clear during the festival. The Netflix logo was boo-ed at Okja’s premiere – and the film was screened in the wrong aspect ratio, so had to be restarted after ten minutes, raising suspicions that this was a deliberate protest by disgruntled projectionists.

‘L’Affaire de Netflix’ as Sarandos cheekily dubbed it, dominated chatter throughout the festival. Jury president Pedro Almodovar said he “couldn’t conceive a film wins the Palme d’Or or any other prize that we can’t see on a big screen in cinemas” and sure enough both Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories walked away from the festival empty-handed. Meanwhile, fellow juror Will Smith, whose next film Bright is also backed by Netflix, said the streaming giant “has done nothing but broaden my children’s global cinematic comprehension”, while Bong Joon Ho praised Netflix for the artistic freedom the company had given him.

So amongst filmmakers it seems your opinion on Netflix’s distribution strategy depends on whether you need the company to finance your next film. Amazon also had a film in competition, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, but apart from also having its logo boo-ed at the premiere, kept its head well below the parapet. Then a few days ago, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings crowed that the controversy was “fantastic for us” as it brought more attention to its two films.

But this is a debate that will last much longer than the hype around any individual film. Now that the credits have closed on this year’s edition of the festival, Chime has a few thoughts about how this controversy will play out in the years to come..

1. FRANCE’S MEDIA CHRONOLOGY LAWS NEED TO BE REFORMED

There should be measures in place to protect the theatrical experience. There should also be measures to protect local-language production. But a 36-month streaming window is an anachronism in a world where consumers expect to access content as soon as they hear about it. As in North America, France’s windows are protecting cinemas that play concerts and sports in addition to movies, and pay-TV operators like Canal Plus, which are acquiring fewer films. It would be more realistic to shorten the window but insist that streamers like Netflix and Amazon invest a portion of their local revenues into French-language production. France has been debating its media chronology laws for some time, but talks broke down this month. These are issues for Macron’s new government, in particular new culture minister Francoise Nyssen, to discuss.

2. NETFLIX NEEDS CANNES

Sarandos was quoted saying that “distribution is changing, therefore festivals will have to change too” and also stated that Cannes’ new restrictions would make the festival “less attractive” in future. But until something changes dramatically in the way that films are marketed at an international level, Cannes and the Oscars (and to a lesser extent the Baftas, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and Toronto), are still the only way to make your film stand out from the clutter. And that remains true whether you’re releasing a film in theatres or on a streaming platform. Netflix is already agreeing to awards-qualifying theatrical runs in the US and UK so that its films are eligible for gongs at the world’s top two awards ceremonies – so is it really such a big deal to agree to a French theatrical release in order to premiere at the world’s biggest film festival? Cannes has all the leverage here – there are at least two global streaming platforms – but there’s only one Cannes.

3. CANNES PROBABLY DOESN’T NEED NETFLIX

Even if Netflix doesn’t feel it necessary to premiere its films at Cannes, what would the festival actually be losing? Cannes has a completist approach to programming – this year it screened episodes from Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake: China Girl and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return – not because the festival is embracing television but because it feels it necessary to showcase the latest works of two important directors. But if Cannes chose to forego a few brand name directors, because they are working in mediums other than theatrical, and looked further afield to introduce a wider range of filmmakers, thereby creating new brands in the process, would it really be the end of Cannes as we know it? Rather than reject the cinematic form, it’s likely that the biggest directors will bounce between the theatrical, streaming and TV worlds depending on the nature of each project.

4. NETFLIX IS MAKING FILMS THAT THE TRADITIONAL SYSTEM DOESN’T SUPPORT

Okja is essentially an arthouse film that was made for $50m, which is not the kind of budget that indie distributors would feel comfortable supporting, as the film has a unique but challenging premise and doesn’t feature an A-list cast. It stars Tilda Swinton and Paul Dano in the story of a young girl trying to save her giant pet pig from corporate exploitation. It probably wouldn’t have happened without Netflix, especially as Bong’s last film Snowpiercer, an equally innovative film made for $40m, was not a huge theatrical success. David Michod and Brad Pitt have also said that their $60m military comedy War Machine wouldn’t have been made without Netflix. And after Silence flopped, Mexican financier Gastón Pavlovich had to turn to the streaming giant to get Scorsese’s $125m The Irishman financed. Netflix is enabling challenging films to be made on bigger budgets.

5. WHETHER FILMMAKERS WILL BE HAPPY WITH THE OUTCOME REMAINS TO BE SEEN

On a financial level, Netflix is defying its detractors – the company is spending heavily but is profitable and analysts don’t appear overly concerned when it misses subscriber targets. And as it’s spending big bucks and enabling creative visions to be realised, it’s attracting some of the industry’s biggest directors. The test comes when those filmmakers see what happens to their films once they’ve been streamed. Okja is launching on Netflix in 190 countries on June 28 and will receive a simultaneous theatrical release in the US, UK and South Korea. Bong was not happy with how The Weinstein Company handled Snowpiercer in North America, which is why he’s now working with Netflix and their promise of final cut. But will he receive the same kind of awards honour as with his previous work and will Netflix really widen the audience for the film? If Netflix can’t prove it can deliver glory and global audiences for its filmmakers, it may not continue to attract the big names.

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