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Cannes 2017: two vastly different cinema cultures provoke one big Netflix controversy

Boos for Netflix’s logo and ongoing arguments expose two ways of thinking about the movies.

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Netflix brought the controversy to Cannes in 2017.
Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every iteration of the Cannes Film Festival needs some controversy to anchor it — it's practically written into the festival's bylaws. The 2017 edition got its start early, with Netflix (which produced two films in competition, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories) and the professional association for French movie theater owners at loggerheads over Netflix's refusal to open the two films in theaters in France.

On first blush, the issue looks like a legal one. French law mandates that a movie will not release on streaming services until 36 months — that's three years — after its French theatrical run. By contrast, movies in the US only lag by a few months — and these days sometimes there's no lag at all, with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon sometimes releasing films a week after, or even on the same day as, the theatrical release. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mandates that a film must have at least a one-week theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles to be considered for an Oscar, which in some cases is why some films get extremely brief and limited theatrical releases.)

Unlike its competitor Amazon — which takes some of its films, such as last year's Oscar winner Manchester by the Sea, through a traditional festival and theatrical release route before making it available to stream — Netflix's business model is based on flooding its service with an enormous amount of exclusive content. Both Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories are part of this strategy, in different ways: Okja goes straight to Netflix without a theatrical detour in most countries on June 28, and this fall The Meyerowitz Stories will open in limited theatrical release (and likely play a few festivals before that) the same day it lands on Netflix.

If Okja were to release in theaters in France, though, it wouldn't be allowed to release on French Netflix until 2020. And that just won't work for Netflix, which prefers to have the films it produces release on the same date worldwide. So Netflix has elected not to release it or The Meyerowitz Stories in cinemas in France. This is what launched the Cannes controversy: French theater owners raised an outcry, and the festival decided that only films receiving a theatrical release in France will be eligible to play in competition at Cannes in the future. (“In competition” means they're eligible to receive a number of prestigious awards, including the Palme d'Or; presumably Netflix films may be eligible in other official categories at Cannes in the future.)

And yet the legalities are not what’s most interesting about the controversy. More fascinating are the festival discussions prompted by the ideological gulf between French laws governing cinema and the United States’ Wild West approach to streaming content, and what those discussions reveal about the different ways of thinking about cinema. For some, cinema culture is all about shared experience and preservation of a medium; for others, it’s about individuals having the freedom and ability to choose what they want to watch, when and how they want to watch it.

And those two ways of viewing cinema have collided at Cannes.

Stars and directors have felt obliged to weigh in on the controversy

The Netflix controversy has been the talk of Cannes, so much so that I wonder if it's in part a welcome break from the political tumult roiling throughout the rest of the world. The festival's opening press conference on Wednesday, May 17 — traditionally kind of a snooze — turned into a friendly but tense affair, with jury president and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar saying that all films should be seen on the big screen, while juror and American actor/entertainer Will Smith argued that his children both go to the theater and watch movies at home.

“In my house, Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit,” Smith said — especially for exposing his children to movies from around the world. Smith's kids “get to see films they absolutely wouldn’t have seen. Netflix brings a great connectivity. There are movies that are not on a screen within 8,000 miles of them. They get to find those artists.”

Instant View - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Will Smith, Jessica Chastain, and Pedro Almodóvar at Cannes in 2017.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

A week into Cannes, though, the controversy — like everyone else at the festival — is starting to feel kind of tired. In a small conversation with American journalists on Monday, May 22, The Meyerowitz Stories writer-director Noah Baumbach rolled his eyes when asked about whether he’d have gone with a different distributor than Netflix and asked for a topic change. His cast had already weighed in a bit wearily, with Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Emma Thompson all pointing out that big movie studios no longer make the kind of comedies they used to do in recent decades.

“The general landscape has changed — what movies the studios are making,” said Stiller. “They’re making fewer comedies. They’re making less of everything, except what’s making them money, and that’s why Netflix is doing so well with what they’re doing now. They’re the only ones who are making interesting movies in this mid-budget range that the studios used to do back in the ’70s, ’80s, maybe even ’90s and 2000s, but then it kind of went away in the last five or 10 years.”

The controversy — and jury president Almodóvar's vocal opposition — has sparked worry from some quarters that the Netflix association could harm the chances of Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories in competition for the Palme d'Or and other prizes.

However, on Friday, in a conference following the press premiere of Okja, actress Tilda Swinton brushed aside such fears.

“The truth is we didn’t actually come here for prizes; we came here to show this film,” she said. “And it is true that we get the wonderful privilege to show this film on this screen. I think it’s an enormous and really interesting conversation that’s just beginning. But what I really think is that there is room for everyone.”

Okja's director, Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), agreed, adding, “In fact, I loved working with Netflix. They gave me total freedom in terms of the casting, shooting and editing.”

These comments — and many others in conversations taking place in cafes and theaters at Cannes — have exposed the fault lines between two ways of thinking about cinema that tend to collide at an event like Cannes, which prides itself on being the premier festival for great, artistic cinema, and for including movies from nearly every genre produced around the world.

The French way of thinking about cinema prizes the collective experience

One way of thinking about cinema is broadly represented by the French theater owners, but also by the French concept of the “cultural exception,” an aspect of French law intended to treat cultural goods and services differently than other types of goods and services. The idea is that cinema, no matter the category or genre, is primarily a communal and public art that is too important to be subject to the simple supply-and-demand forces of the open market. Art, and cinema, is special.

'The Meyerowitz Stories' Departures - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Adam Sandler, and Noah Baumbach on the red carpet following the premiere of The Meyerowitz Stories.
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Netflix

The cinema is a sacred place in France, and films (even those that might be considered obscure in the United States) are a worthy pastime — and not just for cosmopolitan elites. In the wonderful documentary Visages, Villages (playing out of competition at Cannes), a factory worker in a rural French town nonchalantly notes that most of the workers at the factory make a habit of going to the local cinema — and the theater owner, as it turns out, is friends with the French cinema legend Agnès Varda, who co-directed the film.

The French come by their notions about cinema honestly. In many respects, France is the birthplace of cinema, with early pioneers like Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers developing technology and making some of the most iconic early films. And pioneers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut invented techniques that define cinema as we know it today — not to mention the many critics who shaped the way we talk about film, as well as the Cannes Film Festival itself.

To the French mind, the cinema is a place where art is experienced in community and then argued about afterward (preferably over a bottle of wine). Art is rarely just a diversion in France; it's a big part of what knits people together.

This is an ideal, of course. France, despite the way Americans fetishize it, is no utopia when it comes to art; it’s overly given to traditionalism and often fixated on the past. But it's an ideal many see as worth preserving. So the idea of letting cinema fracture into something mainly bent on entertaining individual tastes (or, at best, the tastes of the people who can sit together in a living room) is anathema. Streaming is not a matter of first resort; it's a last one, something you do only when you have no other option, and after the critical conversation about the film is long over.

The American framework for cinema prizes choice and individual taste — and the results are very different

The other way of thinking about cinema comes from a more American framework, which prizes flexibility and the development of individual taste. In the US — home of Hollywood — film is still largely thought of as escapist entertainment, something to do on the weekend for fun. Box office revenues have been dropping, and cinephilia is a marker of snobbish elites.

In that context, Netflix is actually a boon to movies, something that can buck the trend toward bland, huge-budget entertainment aimed at dragging in the maximum revenue possible. As Stiller pointed out, the flexibility and targeted nature of Netflix lets the company invest midrange resources into films on which studios are no longer willing to gamble.

And the barrier to entry with a movie on Netflix is relatively low; someone who might not buy an expensive movie ticket and hire a babysitter for a movie they haven't heard of may take a chance on it from the comfort of their living room couch. That means that foreign films as well as more niche fare could potentially garner a broader audience from a streaming service than it might in a movie theater.

'Okja' Press Conference - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Tilda Swinton at the press conference for Okja at the Cannes Film Festival.
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

Naturally, the results are mixed. Many people who love movies and the theatrical experience are concerned that Netflix and services like it will both kill theaters and turn moviemaking into content farms tailored to audiences' tastes, instead of a place for artists to challenge and form those tastes. Most of the great advances in filmmaking history never would have happened if the sole concern were audiences’ comfort.

But the fact remains that Americans value individual choice in their entertainment, while in France (and many parts of Europe) cinema culture still reigns supreme, bolstered by policy choices that keep the theatrical experience front and center. Those two worlds collided at Cannes in 2017, and the resulting policy seems less like a fix than a first move in an impending decades-long chess game. And the inclusion in this year's festival of two television series by former Palme d'Or winners, David Lynch's Twin Peaks and Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, hints at the complex negotiations and decisions that wait on the Cannes horizon.

The next big moment in cinema is just beginning.

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