The powerhouses of international cinema have all assembled at the Cannes Film Festival, as they do year after year, but it seems that all anyone can talk about is Netflix. Yes, the streaming service's Cannes debut, which includes two films this year, has become quite a scandal, that's captivated everyone from Will Smith to Pedro Almodóvar. Even a high placed French Government appointee has entered the fray by dissing Netflix, calling the company little more than "the perfect representation of American cultural imperialism."
So what exactly is it that has everyone in France scrunching their face in disgust like they've just tasted bad Italian wine? Well, that's where it gets complicated.
Having already conquered the world of prestige TV, Netflix is now intent on doing the same with film (see their recent domination of acquisitions at Sundance). As part of that effort, they're bringing two films from well respected directors they financed to Cannes. Their offerings: Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho's Tilda Swinton-starring film Okja and American indie dramedy darling Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. Aside from the fact that the latter happens to feature Adam Sandler in a co-starring role, these are exactly the types of films you'd expect to see at Cannes.
The main issue isn't the quality of the films, but rather a clash between how Netflix does business and how the French government funds the arts. According to The New York Times, France has what's known as the "French cultural exception" that requires a small percentage of revenue from theatrical, video on demand, television and streaming releases to be pooled to help finance home-grown cinema. The rule also mandates a window of 36 months between a film's premiere in a movie theater and when it can roll out to a streaming service. France may have better public funding for culture than the United States, but it often comes with tougher regulations (this is the government that dictates what can and can not be called "haute couture," after all).
Netflix could evade all of that by just forgoing a French theatrical release all together, but Cannes officially ruled last week that while it would allow Netflix to show its two films this year as planned, starting next year it will require all mainstream movies in the festival to commit to a traditional theatrical release in the country.
Netflix, of course, is not in the business of traditional theatrical releases. To be in contention for most American film awards all that is often required is that a film receives some sort of theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles before being released for home consumption. So when Netflix has Oscar ambitions, like it did with 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild, it has a tendency to drop a film into a very limited theatrical release and encourage most people to watch it on its own platform. (Compare this to archival Amazon, which is more likely to commit to a full traditional theatrical release before putting the film online, like it did with Manchester By the Sea. Amazon also has a film in this year's festival, but has avoided the controversy all together).
Basically, Netflix wants all the cultural buzz and glory associated with traditional film festivals and the awards circuit, but still wants to drive users to its subscription service without a care in the world for traditional box office receipts. That's been much easier to do with television, but film has been harder to crack. The Cannes uproar is only forcing an issue that's existed elsewhere for a while, and in recent weeks Netflix has shown some openness to rethinking its theatrical release strategy.
Though, for some in France those signs of possible appeasement haven't gone far enough.
“They are the perfect representation of American cultural imperialism,” Christophe Tardieu, director of the National Cinema Center, a government entity distributes funding to French cinema told The New York Times. “I deplore Netflix’s attitude in this affair, which showed total intransigence and refusing to understand and accept how the French cultural exception works."
Well, tell us how you really feel.
Then, of course, there's also the much older matter of those who hold to the idea that a big screen is the only valid place to see a film.
It's an issue that has pitted unlikely rivals Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish film director who serves as the president of the festival's awards jury this year, and Hollywood star Will Smith, who is serving as a jury member, against each other.
"Digital platforms are a new way of offering words and images, which in itself are enriching. But these platforms should not take the place of existing forms like the movie theaters," said Almodovar during a jury press conference according to The Hollywood Reporter. "They should under no circumstances change the offer for spectators. The only solution I think is that the new platforms accept and obey the existing rules that are already adopted and respected by the existing networks."
He then suggested that he might hold the release plans for Netflix's two offering against them. "I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen," he added.
It was Smith who then spoke up in favor of Netflix while citing the viewing habit of his progeny Jaden and Willow Smith.
"In my home, Netflix has had absolutely no effect on what [my children] go to the movie theater to watch, go to the cinema to be humbled by certain images and stay home for others — no cross. In my home Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit — [they] watch films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen," he said. "It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension."
Who knew this could all come down to the Smith children's media habits?
In any case, Netflix has a whole year to rethink both its theatrical release strategy and its commitment to Cannes.
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