For two years, the world’s biggest streaming service and its most prestigious film festival have been locked in a battle with big consequences for cinema’s future. And nobody’s won — yet.
Variety reports that though Netflix and the Cannes Film Festival have been in talks for a year, the streaming giant won’t be bringing any films to Cannes this May. According to Variety, Netflix doesn’t have a film that’s ready for the festival. But even if it did, it wouldn’t bring it there.
(Some had speculated that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, on which Netflix has reportedly spent upward of $140 million, might be ready for the festival, and Cannes director Thierry Frémaux seemed eager to nab the film. But the Variety report confirms that it’s not ready. No surprise, as the famously meticulous Scorsese is notorious for taking his time.)
Netflix and Cannes have been fighting for years
The origins of the Cannes/Netflix row lie largely in the competing priorities of Hollywood, which prizes individual taste and choice, and French cinema culture, which emphasizes cultural preservation and the theatrical experience. The spark was lit in 2017 when Netflix brought two films to compete in Cannes: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). The streaming giant planned to release the films worldwide to its streaming service within a few months of the festival — but not to theaters in France.
Why? Because French law mandates a 36-month window between a film’s theatrical release and its release on streaming services. Netflix didn’t want to wait until 2020 for Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories to show up on its French service. So it decided to simply skip the theatrical release for those two films. But French theater owners revolted, and the festival — an important part of the film ecosystem in France — decided that only films receiving a theatrical release in France will be eligible to play in competition at Cannes in the future.
Netflix could, however, bring films to the festival; they just wouldn’t be eligible for the big prizes, like the Palme d’Or. (A number of films premiere out of competition at the festival every year, such as Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018.)
In response, Netflix essentially decided to pick up its ball and go home.
In April 2018, a month before the festival opened, Netflix announced that it wouldn’t be bringing any of its films to the festival, and that it hadn’t resolved the dispute with Cannes and the French theater owners. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told Variety (somewhat disingenuously) that the choice to pull out was “not our decision to make,” arguing 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.)
No films with Netflix distribution played in any section at Cannes in 2018. That included The Other Side of the Wind, the highly anticipated unfinished film from the late legend Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), as well as Roma, from Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), which went on to a highly decorated awards season that ended with 10 Oscar nominations and three wins. Both films premiered at other festivals but undeniably “feel” like films from Cannes, where “auteur”-driven movies by celebrated directors reign supreme.
Reportedly, missing out on Roma was one of the reasons Frémaux was eager to secure The Irishman for the festival. But Netflix is opting out again, though Variety reports that the company will still send an acquisitions team to Cannes, where it can scout and acquire films for distribution in the US or elsewhere.
And the ongoing battle between Cannes and Netflix points to the broader battle for the big screen. It’s not just happening in France; recently, Steven Spielberg made waves following Roma’s strong showing at the Oscars for urging the Academy to set rules that were widely seen as an effort to disqualify films from Netflix and other streaming companies from winning Oscars.
With Netflix joining the Motion Picture Association of America last December — the organization whose other six members include Hollywood’s major studios, such as Disney, Warner Bros., and Paramount Pictures — the company’s clear intent to change the movie landscape is causing some panic among industry players, who worry Netflix will obliterate the theatrical experience that’s at the root of cinema as a medium. The Cannes kerfuffle is just one piece of that larger puzzle.