Does Netflix deserve a place at Cannes?

The festival has caused a stir by banning the digital distributor from its official competition.

Words

Georgina Guthrie

The Cannes Film Festival has banned Netflix from entering films into this year’s official competition. In retaliation, the streaming giant has threatened to snub the festival altogether by withdrawing five features previously eyed for a berth at the prestigious fortnight-long event.

Cannes did screen two Netflix titles in 2017 – Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories – much to the chagrin of critics and traditional distributors: as the lights dimmed, a frosty festival audience began booing the second the Netflix logo appeared on the screen.

To placate disgruntled crowds, the festival’s artistic director Thierry Frémaux has announced that any film nominated for the Palme d’Or in 2018 must have theatrical distribution in France. But French law only permits movies to be shown on streaming sites 36 months after theatrical their release, making it a hopeless situation for the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

There are a couple of arguments as to why streaming-only titles should not be allowed to compete at Cannes. Firstly, companies like Netflix are actively enticing crowds away from cinemas, so blocking their participation will protect the relationship between filmmakers and theatre operators. Secondly, under-threat theatres provide an unrivalled viewing experience – one that is worthy of preservation. (It’s worth noting that Cannes has underlined its commitment to supporting cinema by offering 1,000 complimentary festival badges to young cinephiles.)

But the fact remains: a lot of people choose to watch movies via streaming services, on a multitude of different devices. Denying digital distributors altogether means that the festival runs the risk of alienating the wider film-loving public, while at the same time delegitimising the work and excluding the artists behind it.

In the current climate, it’s tougher than ever for an original concept to secure financial backing: in many cases, studios only consider distributing a film when it been independently financed. Netflix takes a gamble on both emerging voices and established talent and routinely rescues projects from development hell.

Bypassing studios to connect audiences with a greater variety of film content is commendable. But Netflix is in a tricky situation: they want to forge their own path using disruptive methods, yet they crave – and in fact need – the industry’s approval if they are to continue attracting high-profile filmmakers and discerning audiences.

The company’s current model forces filmmakers to choose between financial support and creative freedom, and the prestige the comes with participating in major film festivals around the world. It looks increasingly likely that Netflix will at some point be forced to reach a compromise, possibly by factoring in theatrical runs for their higher-profile original releases, something which they have already trialled in North America.

On the other hand, should festivals themselves be more open to changing consumer habits? As Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux told the Hollywood Reporter recently, “We have to take into account the existence of these powerful new players: Amazon, Netflix and maybe soon Apple.” He goes on to say that streaming-only films are more like “hybrids” between movies and TV shows, and that, “Cinema [still] triumphs everywhere, even in this golden age of series.”

For now Netflix and Cannes appear to have reached an impasse. But despite their ideological differences, there is one point both sides agree on. Echoing Frémaux, Netflix boss Ted Sarandos observed in 2015 that, “Nothing on Netflix can compete with wanting to go out to the movies with your girlfriend. If you don’t want to put on your shoes, nothing in the theaters can compete with Netflix.”

Where do you stand on the Cannes versus Netflix debate? Have your say @LWLies

Published 11 Apr 2018

Tags: Bong Joon-ho Cannes Netflix Noah Baumbach Ted Sarandos Thierry Frémaux

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