Founded in 1946, the Cannes Film Festival has always been an iconic event for French and international cinema, with an audience less broad than the Oscars but with a sharper focus on auteur films. While the bigger productions still tend to rule the Academy Awards, the Festival has been fighting a battle to keep its independent vision at the forefront of the festival circuit.
That battle has reached a new tipping point with the arrival of Netflix in Cannes's Official Competition section, mainly, with Bong Joon-ho's Okja and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. Many at Cannes and in the French industry aren't happy with the Festival's choice to include movies destined first and foremost for a streaming platform, instead of the traditional theatre release. But while American commenters have been quick to dismiss Cannes's position as archaic, the conflict is underlining an essential debate about the nature and purpose of movies.
Understanding The French Exception
To understand what so drastically opposes Netflix and Cannes, you need to get an idea of the landscape of the French movie industry. A pioneer of cinema, the country provides both generous subsidies and a strict framework in which movies are meant to be produced and released. As such, the law requires that part of the revenue drawn from the box office as well as DVD releases, television and streaming goes to finance new movies — and that there need to be 36 months between the release of a movie in theaters and the date it's made available on streaming platforms.
Obviously, #Netflix would see no point in financing a movie's release in French theaters if that means its French users will have to wait three years for it to be ready to stream. So the streaming giant submitted its movies to Cannes without planning for a theatrical release in France, a contentious move considering how the Festival is all about a more traditional kind of cinema.
Is Netflix Refusing To Bow To Cannes's Rules, Or Is It The Opposite?
By including Netflix's new offerings into the highly regarded "Official Selection" of the Festival, organizers were surely hoping that they would find a way to release the two movies in French theaters like everybody else. Netflix has offered to plan a limited release in theaters the day the movies become available on its platform, but that's clearly the furthest it can go. Still, the company insisted in a statement that they weren't attempting to escape the French regulation:
We are thrilled to explore any and all options that will give these films an opportunity to be viewed by as large an audience as possible, on a variety of screens, because similar to French exhibitors, we want to continue to contribute to the development and financing of films.
As Christophe Tardieu, the director of the National Cinema Center (CNC) that coordinates the financing of films in France and provides most of the Festival's budget, told the New York Times, this response is far from enough:
"They are the perfect representation of American cultural imperialism. I deplore Netflix's attitude in this affair, which showed total intransigence and refusing to understand and accept how the French cultural exception works."
The Festival responded by announcing that starting next year, movies without a theatrical release planned in France would be banned from entering the competition.
While not all attendees of the Festival were so harsh about Netflix's move, the contrasting approaches raise an important debate on the perception and evolution of cinema. As Marc-Olivier Sebbag, executive officer of the National Federation of French Cinemas (FNCF) puts it:
"Competition is the showcase. What is the nature of a festival where films win prizes but don't release in theaters?"
This sentiment was echoed by Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish director presiding over the Cannes jury this year, on the opening night of the Festival:
"I personally cannot conceive of not only the Palme d'Or, but any other prize, being given to a film and then being unable to see this film on a large screen."
Considering Cannes's history and its commitment to cinematic excellence, it makes perfect sense to value films as a great form of art that can't just be consumed anywhere, anytime. But as theaters become more expensive and flat screen TVs and home projectors more affordable, most movie fans are keeping the entertainment at home, so Netflix is a trailblazer that is clearly shaping the movie industry. Still, should that be the only path for the future of film?
If you ask Bong Joon-ho himself, theater releases don't really matter since movies end up on DVD anyway:
"All films are eventually archived in DVDs, Blu-rays and in other digital media after screening in theaters for a while. Considering that as all films' life cycle, I don't think making a film backed by Netflix makes much difference for me as a filmmaker."
Personally, while the French exception is indeed in need of an administrative update, I applaud Cannes for continuing to carry its vision of cinema, and fighting to maintain the experience of watching a film as a truly special one.
How important do you think it is for movies to be released in theaters? Would you be satisfied with just watching them at home?