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Netflix vs. Cannes: why they’re fighting, what it means for cinema, and who really loses

The streaming giant won’t be sending its movies to the world’s most prestigious film festival this year, for dubious reasons.

71th Cannes Film Festival Official Selection Presentation At UGC Normandie In Paris
Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux is locked in a battle with Netflix.
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images
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.

The Cannes Film Festival and Netflix are at it again. With less than a month to go before the luminaries start walking the red carpet at the world’s most prestigious film festival, the two entities have renewed a battle that started there last year. And it’s sparked arguments around the world about what really counts as cinema.

But if you find yourself confused about what Cannes and Netflix are arguing over, what it really means, and who’s right, then you’re not alone. It’s a complex, layered fight, one that’s fundamentally about differing cultures and definitions of cinema. And it’s complicated by Netflix chief Ted Sarandos’s statements, which sometimes seem calculated to obscure what’s actually going on.

Here’s what happened, what it means, and why it matters.

What happened between Netflix and Cannes?

The Netflix-Cannes showdown was the controversy du jour in the film world last May. Two films produced and distributed by the streaming giant — Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories were competing at the festival. Netflix planned to release those films on its streaming platform in France at the same time as it did everywhere else: June for Okja (a billboard advertisement for the film hung within sight of the Palais des Festivals, near the famous red carpet) and, after a few more festival stops, a fall release for Meyerowitz.

That infuriated the union of French theater owners, since French law calls for a 36-month waiting period between theatrical release and streaming release. Releasing the films in French theaters would mean Netflix would have to abide by that law. But Netflix wanted to release the films to streaming in France much sooner, and thus refused to release them in French theaters. Controversy ensued.

L’affaire Netflix seemed to reach a détente, or maybe just a standstill, when festival director Thierry Frémaux declared that if Netflix (or anyone else) refused to commit to theatrical release in France, their films would be barred from the main Cannes competition in the future. That meant no Netflix film could win any of the main awards at Cannes, including the Palme d’Or or the Grand Prix — both highly regarded awards in the world of cinema, though by no means harbingers of commercial success. (The former was won by the Swedish satirical drama The Square and the latter by the French drama BPM.)

With the 2018 Cannes Film Festival looming, Frémaux reiterated in an interview with Variety that the rule would stand. “We are all about cinema and we wish to have films that play in competition get released in theaters,” he told the trade publication. “That’s the model of film lovers and Netflix must respect it as well.” Frémaux said that Netflix movies were welcome in other sections of Cannes, or welcome to play out of competition (where films like last year’s eventual Oscar Best Documentary nominee Faces Places, or this year’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, play).

But that didn’t satisfy Netflix, which chose to escalate the quarrel. Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer, told Variety on April 11 that they’d be pulling out of the festival completely — not just the competition, but every other section of the festival too.

Somewhat disingenuously, Sarandos said the decision to pull out was “not our decision to make,” arguing (incorrectly) that the new rule “requires a film to have distribution in France to get in, which is completely contrary to the spirit of any film festival in the world.” (The rule only required a film to plan for theatrical release in France if it wanted to compete for the festival’s main prizes.) When questioned, Sarandos said, “I don’t think there would be any reason to go out of competition. The rule was implicitly about Netflix, and Thierry made it explicitly about Netflix when he announced the rule.”

As a result, no films with Netflix distribution will play in any section at Cannes this year. That includes The Other Side of the Wind, a highly anticipated unfinished film from the late legend Orson Welles, as well as movies from directors like Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Paul Greengrass (Captain Philips), and Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room).

'Okja' Red Carpet Arrivals - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
On the red carpet for the Netflix film Okja last year in Cannes.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Speaking to Variety after Netflix’s decision, Frémaux left open the possibility that a future compromise might still be reached. “We’re having constructive discussions with Netflix and the door is not shut,” he said. “I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma several times and it’s a marvelous film and we wanted to have it in competition. As far as Orson Welles’ film The Other Side of the Wind, we were really eager to show the film out of competition. It’s a sad situation for everyone involved.”

What are Netflix and Cannes actually fighting over?

It’s not hard to see that this move on Netflix’s part is not really about the festival’s new rule, since it still could have premiered a film out of competition. Sarandos’s refusal to treat that as a possibility shows where the real fight lies. It’s not about theatrical versus streaming distribution, or about whether it’s okay to watch a film at home instead of in a theater. It’s about Netflix asserting its view of cinema over and against Cannes’s perspective.

As I wrote from the festival last year, this conflict is really about two very different cinema cultures. There’s the French perspective, which sees cinema as a fundamentally communal experience devoted to an art that is meant to be projected onto a big screen. And then there’s the American one, which prizes choice and individual taste and looks at a movie as something that’s the same no matter the size of the screen and the viewing conditions under which you see it. It would be nice to see it in a theater, but in the American way of seeing the matter, there’s no real difference.

Implicit in this argument are differing attitudes about the rules of cultural production. France is famously prescriptive about its culture, in ways that can be baffling to Americans. This is, after all, a country in which the Académie française, a committee comprising 40 people dubbed les Immortels, officially determines what kinds of words and changes will be allowed in the French language. (Not to mention that the recipe for the ubiquitous baguette is officially encoded in French law, and your morning croissant can only be shaped straight if it’s made with 100 percent butter.)

'The Meyerowitz Stories' Departures - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and director Noah Baumbach on the red carpet for The Meyerowitz Stories at the festival in 2017.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

This is all intended to safeguard French identity and culture. But it’s very different from the American perspective, which has very few rules about cultural production at all. Art and culture in America develops largely along the lines of what the market will bear — and while that can lead to plenty of innovation, it also tends to discard as “outdated” or useless forms of art that can’t sustain market viability.

In his statement about Netflix’s choice to withdraw its films from the festival, Sarandos (rather passive-aggressively, I might add) cast the decision that way. “We are choosing to be about the future of cinema,” he told Variety. “If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine.”

Setting aside Sarandos’s remarkably hubristic attempts to cast Netflix as Cinema’s Savior, this does once again make it clear that the fundamental dispute is over what “cinema” is. To Sarandos and Netflix, operating in a more American-inflected framework, “cinema” is the content they serve up, which you can watch in any manner you want as long as you pony up the money for their service. To Cannes, cinema is by definition an art that requires a particular context for exhibition, and it needs protecting to keep market forces from elbowing out the possibility for that kind of exhibition.

You can side with Netflix or Cannes in this debate, and thoughtful people fall all along that spectrum. But the issue has always been that Netflix wants Cannes to give up its definition and take on Netflix’s definition instead.

So in the Netflix versus Cannes debate, who is right?

There’s a compelling case to be made that both Cannes and Netflix are in the wrong, at least a little. But when it comes to the actual argument, I’d say that Netflix is, well, wronger.

Talking to Variety, Sarandos said that Cannes “has chosen to celebrate distribution rather than the art of cinema.” By contrast, he said, Netflix is “100% about the art of cinema. And by the way, every other festival in the world is too.”

This is the crux of the matter. Sarandos is attempting to position Netflix as the guardian of cinema, which, he says, is being hamstrung by Cannes.

71th Cannes Film Festival Official Selection Presentation At UGC Normandie In Paris
The poster for this year’s Cannes Film Festival has been unveiled.
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

I could describe this as “disingenuous,” but it doesn’t really cover it. Cannes has no issue with accepting films that are produced and distributed by mostly digital companies. Amazon, for instance, had a film in competition last year — Wonderstruck — and while some purists booed it during screenings, that wasn’t much of a surprise; booing is de rigueur at Cannes. Wonderstruck went on to traditional theatrical release conforming to France’s laws, and Cannes has displayed no beef with the company, even though its end goal is digital distribution.

Netflix, however, is taking the strong-arm tactic. Cannes doesn’t care what Netflix does with its movies outside of France. It also doesn’t care what Netflix does with its movies if they’re not one of the 20 films selected to play in the festival’s competition.

Netflix cares, though. That’s likely because the official cultural policy in France is designed to limit how much a company like Netflix can “disrupt” cinema. And Netflix is a business bent on disruption.

Understanding the place of Cannes in the culture of French cinema helps illuminate why this matters. The festival has a deserved reputation for being exclusive and highbrow, and it would be a mistake to imagine that France is full of people whose taste match the festival’s. And yet there’s a sense in which Cannes sees itself as the guardian of an art form that is under attack from market forces. I’ve spent the month of June — right after the festival’s conclusion — living in Paris on several occasions, and it’s notable how much of the theatrical programming and conversation centers on what just happened in Cannes, located a six-hour train ride from the French capital.

That simply doesn’t happen in the United States — probably because no American film festival matters to American cinema culture the way Cannes does to French cinema.

'The Meyerowitz Stories' Departures - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Ted Sarandos and Dustin Hoffman on the Cannes red carpet after The Meyerowitz Stories premiere in 2017.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

So Sarandos’s claim that Cannes wants to “celebrate distribution rather than the art of cinema” is dead wrong. A more correct statement would be that Netflix doesn’t want to conform to French cinema culture, and — in a manner not totally unlike a second-grade boy who gets his feelings hurt on the baseball field — if they can’t play on their own terms, they’ll go home and bring their movies with them.

In the Netflix versus Cannes debate, who loses?

So who gets hurt in this equation?

It’s not Cannes. The day following Sarandos’s announcement, the festival announced the first round of its official selection, which is noticeably free of most obviously commercial films (the only two from American directors competing are BlacKkKlansman, from Spike Lee, and Under the Silver Lake, from It Follows director David Robert Mitchell). But that doesn’t hurt Cannes’s standing in the world in some way. As an industry-only festival, it doesn’t have to sell tickets; as the world’s most prestigious festival, it doesn’t have to worry about attracting world-class talent. With seven decades of history behind it, Cannes is not running scared.

It’s not really Netflix either. Sarandos said that festivals “help films get discovered so they can get distribution.” But Netflix is its own distributor on digital platforms, and if it wasn’t planning to distribute its films theatrically — Cannes’s requirement for playing in competition — then it doesn’t lose anything from this bargain.

It’s not even the audiences, or at least not American audiences, for whom Netflix’s decision has virtually no effect. French audiences likely won’t be able to watch Netflix films in theaters, but they’re not suffering for great theatrical choices. Netflix is not the only game in town.

So who really suffers? The artists.

For filmmakers whose movies might have been selected to play out of competition or in another section at Cannes, the result is a career boost. Having your movie play at Cannes means people take notice of it. Press will review it. You’ll be interviewed. You might walk a red carpet. Early buzz might start, which can translate into other festival berths, future ticket sales, and awards season momentum.

The filmmakers know this. When asked by Indiewire, most of them defended Netflix but also voiced hope that the two entities would compromise. But Orson Welles’s daughter, Beatrice, begged Netflix to reconsider on behalf of The Other Side of the Wind, saying, “I have to speak out for my father. I saw how the big production companies destroyed his life, his work, and in so doing a little bit of the man I loved so much. I would so hate to see Netflix be yet another one of these companies.”

The red carpet won’t be seeing any Netflix this year.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Choosing to work with Netflix is the filmmakers’ prerogative, of course. But for many of them, Netflix is the only company that would take a chance on their movie in the first place. Frank Marshall, who oversaw The Other Side of the Wind’s restoration, echoed many other filmmakers when talking about Netflix: “There would be no movie without them. Every studio and financier in town passed on this film, for years.”

In the future, this may pose a dilemma for filmmakers who would like to see their movies considered for Cannes selection, but can’t get anyone but Netflix to fund those films. It would be understandably frustrating to have your film disqualified from the world’s most prestigious festival because your distributor won’t release it in theaters in a single country.

It’s unlikely that other festivals will follow Cannes’s lead, and so Netflix movies will still likely continue to play in other important festivals, like Toronto and Sundance. But as long as Netflix continues to use its films as pawns — refusing to let them even play out of competition — then filmmakers who get funding from the company will have to give up the boost that Cannes can give their career. Because if you’re trying to get the Cannes Film Festival to change its views on the art of cinema, you’d better be prepared to wait a long, long time.