While everyone has been focused on one international trade war – the one that seems specifically designed to do maximum harm to U.S. farmers and manufacturers – another spat has finally reached a conclusion. After a week or so of threats and public declarations Netflix has officially announced it will sit out of this year’s Cannes International Film Festival.
To be fair, this is a bit of a “You can’t break up with me because I’m breaking up with you!” situation, in that the Cannes governing board announced days prior that movies not receiving theatrical distribution in France would not be welcome at the festival. While it didn’t name Netflix explicitly, it was clear who they were talking about.
Still, it’s a remarkably short-sighted move. Not by Netflix, but by Cannes. Seeming to act at the behest of exhibitors upset that anything not projected onto a screen for a mass audience would be qualified as a “film,” Cannes has put itself firmly outside the innovation that’s happening in the media industry as a whole and the film industry specifically.
That movies shown exclusively on Netflix or other streaming services aren’t “movies” is an opinion that’s oddly widespread in the film community. The MPAA seems to be debating exactly this point as it continues to mull whether distribution should determine awards eligibility. Even Steven Spielberg shared his point of view along those lines. Others have commented that Netflix movies should be eligible for Emmys, not Oscars, apparently due to television sets being one of the primary ways they’re viewed.
Indeed the “protecting the sanctity of film” argument is exactly the one used by Cannes director Thierry Frémaux in rationalizing the decision, which enforces French law mandating a 36-month waiting period between theatrical release and streaming availability. Interestingly, he’s also trying to paint himself as the victim here, claiming in a recent interview that he was almost fired for letting Netflix near Cannes last year. His invitation that Netflix is “always welcome” at the festival is disingenuous given the company’s business model would never allow for a three year theatrical window on original productions or acquired titles.
Alissa Wilkinson at Vox is right when she says this is about two different mindsets, one that says watching movies at home is alright and one that says movie watching must primarily happen in a theater. Sam Adams has a point that films are preserved through discussion and revisiting, but that’s tucked inside an otherwise hand-waving dismissal of Netflix’s approach to original films. You can hate on The Cloverfield Paradox all you want but even if you accept Nielsen’s estimates that roughly 785,000 people watched it the night it debuted (I don’t because of obvious sampling issues) it’s likely more than saw the Cannes winner The Square. That’s not a judgement of quality, but access beats quality every time.
Taking the long view, it would seem Cannes has more to lose by shunning Netflix than netflix does by withholding films from the festival.
What Cannes Loses
Most of the ways Cannes comes out on the losing end of this struggle are listed here by Scott Roxborough and Alex Ritman at The Hollywood Reporter. That list is very festival-specific, though, and overlooks some broader industry and societal trends.
First, that Netflix is gaining while theaters are losing. Like it or hate it, more and more people are choosing streaming over the theatrical experience. Netflix viewership alone (which admittedly also includes TV programming) is predicted to grow by 3.6% this year in the U.S. OTT (over the top) is growing more and more each year, with Netflix the dominant player, while movie ticket sales hit a 25 year low in 2017. The trend is not going to change anytime soon and rules like those being enforced by Cannes as well as exhibition industry blockage of premium VOD experiments aren’t going to change it.
Second, it shows a blind eye being turned toward movies being made by and for more diverse talent and audiences. While we praise Disney for Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time and talk about Love, Simon making gay coming of age stories “normal,” the reality is most studio films are still made by, star and are meant for white educated males. The industry has known for years that inclusivity equals higher box office but just can’t pull the trigger on making that a regular thing. Director Dee Rees talked frequently about how most studios passed on Mudbound because it was “difficult,” meaning it would be hard to sell to white suburbanites. Netflix isn’t perfect in this category but it’s committed to creating more diverse TV shows and counts movies like First Match, Roxanne, Roxanne and others starring women, people of color and other groups as both creators and leads.
Third, it’s forgotten it’s not the only game in town. As Adams points out, Sundance and other festivals seem to give not a whit where the movies shown there end up, they want to celebrate filmmaking apart from distribution. The promotional support Netflix gives its originals may be lacking, something I’ve pointed out repeatedly, but when you keep in mind it has different goals for its marketing campaigns that makes a little more sense.
What Netflix Loses
All of that is not to say that Netflix is a big winner here. But the ways it which it comes out on the short end aren’t as serious or numerous as those for Cannes.
First, it does lose a major venue for building relationships with filmmakers. Read any interview with the director of a Netflix original film and it’s virtually guaranteed they’ll mention the creative freedom afforded to them by the company. It needs to keep presenting itself as an outlet for creator-driven stories even while it shifts a bit to focus more on the kind of popcorn entertainment franchises (cough Bright cough) that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the studios. It seems to be doing just fine on that front, though, with new films coming soon from Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón,, Paul Greengrass and others.
Second, Cannes does allow for a major publicity beat with all the entertainment and other press there to cover the festival. But how much was that really a concern when you consider the attention given to something like Ojka was probably half of that afforded a big flashy colorful stunt promoting The Emoji Movie? The disparity would have been greater if there hadn’t been the strong negative reaction to Okja simply by virtue of it coming from Netflix.
The Future of Movies *Is* At Stake
Those claiming that this represents an important battle in deciding the future of movies aren’t wrong, but they’re also not right in the way they think they are. Arguing that movies *must* be seen on a big screen with a group of strangers around you are making the same case you would if you claimed television *must* be transmitted via airwaves and received through rabbit ear antennas.
I’m as big a proponent of the theatrical moviegoing experience as anyone, though circumstances have dictated I don’t do that as much as I like. So most of the movies I watch are on DVDs borrowed from the library or via Netflix or Amazon Prime. And I live in an area where there’s one theater just 10 minutes away and two more within 20 minutes of my house.
Others aren’t so lucky. The conversion to digital exhibition five years ago, before Netflix started seriously getting into original films, caused many theaters to close because they couldn’t afford the necessary renovations. Those closures hit small towns and poor neighborhoods hardest because there simply wasn’t the revenue. In those areas it may not only be inconvenient but not financially viable to regularly go to the movies, making options like the library and streaming services the best available. Indeed, a comScore study last year showed cord-cutting OTT subscribers tended to make under $75,000 annually, though there’s some indication Netflix subscribers are increasingly well-educated and well-off.
So you have to ask yourself, who’s actually doing more to protect the future of film? Netflix, which sometimes shows questionable taste as to the quality of the movies it produces or acquires, or the theatrical industry, which continues flirting with the idea of surge pricing in addition to its regularly hiking standard ticket prices? One is trying to put movies within reach of everyone while the other is trying to make it into a leisure activity for the wealthy.
Let’s be clear that this is not a “feud” between the two companies, despite much of the media coverage framing it as such. Cannes is asking Netflix to accept conditions that run directly counter to the core of its business model and Netflix is refusing to do so. That’s not a feud, it’s simply a sound business decision. Both parties have understandable rationales for the positions they’ve taken, though it’s the filmmakers caught in the crossfire.
While I respect the positions of Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and others who have come down firmly on the side of the theatrical experience being the preferred one, there’s no disputing how almost every self-preservation based move made by the distribution industry has resulted in putting that experience further out of reach of more people. If going to the movies were a viable alternative and made the better case than something like Netflix, more people would be choosing it. That’s simply not the case, and no amount of grandstanding by exhibitors in France or elsewhere will change that, not now.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.