A new rule at the Cannes Film Festival has effectively prevented Netflix from participating in the festival, and I, for one, think it’s disgusting. And like everything else in Hollywood, it all boils down to ego. The war on streaming requires film lovers to pick a side, and I’m ready to enlist with the streaming service I use every day rather than the film festival I’ve never attended.
I may not ever have the chance to attend Cannes after this article, but that’s okay by me, as I’ve always thought of it as an elitist festival — one where attendees are sorted into a ridiculous five-tier caste system based on their status in the industry. One British PR exec once told the Hollywood Reporter that “Cannes’ hierarchies make Downton Abbey look like a model of meritocracy.” Hollywood is already like high school enough, so who needs that kind of hassle overseas?
In addition to the festival’s technophobic new rules, such as this year’s ban on selfies, there’s also the festival’s arcane customs, including its strict dress code for premieres. Now, I appreciate old-school Hollywood glamour as much as the next guy, and even I like to get dressed up for big movie premieres from time to time, but the idea of having to wear a tuxedo to see a movie in the middle of the summer doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Toronto gives you the option to dress up, and Sundance is hardly a fashion show, but Cannes demands high heels and bowties, and I think it’s a silly requirement, especially given how much money it costs to attend the festival in the south of France. Cannes gets more and more expensive each year, and that’s why you see so many outlets covering back on festival coverage — because the return on investment isn’t what it once was.
But those are my own personal reasons for being anti-Cannes. Netflix chief Ted Sarandos gave Variety an extensive interview (quoted below throughout) in which he lists his own, entirely different set of reasons, and they’re much more legitimate than mine. For starters, why should Netflix allow Cannes to relegate its films to the festival’s out-of-competition lineup? That would send the wrong message to filmmakers and their reps, since Netflix wants its films to be viewed as equal to those with traditional theatrical distribution, not lesser than.
“We want our films to be on fair ground with every other filmmaker. There’s a risk in us going in this way and having our films and filmmakers treated disrespectfully at the festival,” said Sarandos before concluding, “I don’t think it would be good for us to be there.”
Keep in mind that Netflix already capitulated to Cannes’ demands once before, as the company said it was willing to have its movies play in French theaters despite its streaming business model. However, French law dictates a 36-month window between a film’s theatrical release and its release on home video or streaming platforms, so if Netflix wanted its films to play in competition at Cannes, not only would it have to release them in French theaters, but then its French subscribers would have to wait three years to watch them on Netflix.
While Netflix has done day-and-date theatrical releases for such prestige titles as Mudbound, Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, the company doesn’t like to make a habit of supporting that strategy, since streaming is its bread and butter. I just don’t understand why other festivals have found it in their hearts to embrace Netflix — such as Sundance, where the streaming service acquired Mudbound and won the Grand Jury Prize for I Don’t Feel at Home In This World Anymore in the same year — but Cannes refuses, even though the festival needs Netflix a lot more than Netflix needs Cannes.
Sarandos is also right when he says that Cannes’ qualification rule that requires a film to have distribution in France to get in is “completely contrary to the spirit of any film festival in the world. Film festivals are to help films get discovered so they can get distribution.” The man makes a good point. Fremaux and the Cannes board are trying to talk out of both sides of the festival’s collective mouth here. Their only real concern should be presenting the best that world cinema has to offer, regardless of where those films debut after the festival.
It’s hard to argue with Sarandos when he says that Cannes “has chosen to celebrate distribution rather than the art of cinema. We are 100% about the art of cinema. And by the way, every other festival in the world is too.” Cannes is effectively defining art by its business model, which should be of no concern to the festival, but Fremaux can’t help but stick his nose where it doesn’t belong, perhaps out of some bizarre sense of duty to the history of cinema. Netflix shouldn’t have to change its entire business model to appease one film festival that isn’t what it once was, and still struggles to move the needle these days.
Let’s not forget that not only does Netflix bring movies to Cannes, it also acquires movies there. While Sarandos won’t be attending the festival this year, he’s still sending an acquisition team, which could end up buying multiple films in competition, thereby getting the last laugh on Fremaux.
In the end, the idea that the Cannes Film Festival is telling filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón and Paul Greengrass to take their new movies (Roma and Norway, respectively) elsewhere is mind-boggling to me. It’s not like Netflix is offering the festival a bunch of Adam Sandler movies (though last year’s Meyerowitz Stories was pretty good). No, the streaming service is offering Cannes the cream of their crop, so to speak, and yet, somehow, that still isn’t good enough. In France, it’s Fremaux’s way or the motorway.
The only thing we can take solace in is that rules were meant to be broken, and this one is hardly permanent. Netflix and Cannes may not have been able to find common ground this year, but Sarandos maintains hope that Fremaux will change his mind “when he realizes how punitive this rule is to filmmakers and film lovers.”
I’ll let Sarandos’ closing words speak for themselves. “We are choosing to be about the future of cinema. If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine.” Translation: You do you, Cannes. In the meantime, I’ll be watching Netflix while I should be writing about your film festival.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief