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Cannes: Why Netflix Can’t Spoil France’s Biggest Celebration of the Movies

It may seem like France and Netflix are at each other's throats, but at Cannes, the tension is more complicated than that.

Will Smith and Pedro AlmodovarOpening Dinner - 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 17 May 2017US actor and jury member Will Smith (R) and Spanish director and jury member Pedro Almodovar (L) arrive for the Opening Dinner of the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, 17 May 2017. The festival runs from 17 to 28 May.

Will Smith and Pedro Almodovar at Cannes Opening Night dinner

LANGSDON/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Netflix may dominate conversations about the future of the movies, but the world’s grandest celebration of cinema won’t cave so easily. The 70th Cannes Film Festival often fuels conversations about the state of the industry, so it’s appropriate that the program’s venerated competition features two upcoming Netflix releases, Bong Joon Ho’s sci-fi “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories,” even though the decision has angered French exhibitors livid with the platform’s disinterest in releasing its titles into theaters.

Cannes placated its national industry by adding a new rule requiring competition films to open in French theaters, but this year’s Netflix selections remain in place, which leaves the current battleground between the digital platform and the theatrical business at a stalemate. However, as usual, the Cannes universe — a high-minded symbiosis of chic posturing and intellectualism — has projected a cavalier attitude about the whole ordeal.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Cannes Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

At the festival’s opening night dinner, the spirit of defiance was strong. Cannes programmers were reportedly blind-sighted by Netflix’s decision to avoid theatrical releases for its titles, in large part because the festival didn’t really collaborate with the company in securing its films; instead, the festival worked with the producers close to the productions, Plan B’s Dede Gardner on “Okja” and Scott Rudin for “Meyerowitz,” a reminder that Cannes doesn’t aim to play by industry rules so much as it plays with movies and the people closest to them.

Okja

“Okja”

Netflix

The festival chases masterpieces, but even when it falls short, it manages to foreground the perception that the main ingredient influencing its decisions is quality — and no high-powered, data-driven behemoth was going to stop that.

“What is happening is normal,” said one insider with close ties to the festival, hovering near a table with this year’s jury. “We don’t care about all this. We just care about the movies. I’m sure that in a few years, all of these stories won’t matter. It’s an old and a new world crossing paths.”

Nearby, jury president Pedro Almodovar received well-wishers and posed for photos with admirers. A few hours ago in a pre-festival press conference, he had expressed his disappointment in any Palme d’Or-worthy movie that failed to receive a theatrical release. For a brief moment, the news cycle suggested that Almodovar actually meant he wouldn’t even consider the two Netflix movies in competition. But truth is more likely that he wouldn’t consider them as Netflix movies at all.

So it goes with Cannes, a microcosm of the prevailing sensibility in a country that harbors the greatest affection for cinema on the planet.

A few tables down sat Christophe Tardieu, director of the National Cinema Center, France’s state entity for financing films. He was still beaming from his money quote in the New York Times earlier that day, where he referred to Netflix as “the perfect representation of American cultural imperialism.”

Here’s an exercise: Find a figure in the American film industry willing to say the same thing. Good luck with that.

In the U.S., Netflix isn’t just a disruptive newcomer with little regard for outdated models; it’s a fact of nature, a content-disseminating monster that even resentful theatrical distributors have begrudgingly accepted. In France, where rules require a 36-month window in between theatrical  and VOD releases, moviegoing remains a sacred affair.

Hanging with his fellow jurors for the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, Fibault Carterot, the CEO of the post-production company M141, shrugged off the ubiquitous Netflix discussion circulating the room. “In France, they don’t have this sense that Netflix is the future of the universe and the center of everything,” he said, noting that his company supervises some 40 features per year with a focus on the ideal theatrical experience. “At least not in the same way.”

cannes opening dinner

At the Cannes Film Festival opening night dinner

Eric Kohn

The French appeared so undaunted by the Netflix challenge that Americans pressing others for their thoughts at the dinner found themselves confronted with topic-changing questions about the chaotic state of the American government. (Talk about something that matters, why don’t you.) But there were supportive arguments in favor of the distributor in some key places.

Robin Wright, in town to screen a short film she directed for the nonprofit production company We Do It Together, was on the verge of wrapping up her successful run on the definitive Netflix success story, “House of Cards.” She spoke warmly about her relationship to content chief Ted Sarandos and the rest of the Netflix “family,” but also spoke highly of Cannes director Thierry Fremaux. “He’s the reason I keep coming back here,” she said.

Wait…whose side is she on? Lost in the media brouhaha surrounding Netflix’s stormy relationship with the theatrical market is that both perspectives have a point. Cannes celebrates movies as big screen achievements, reflecting a broader sense of values pertaining to the art form’s ideal consumption that percolates throughout the country. Netflix doesn’t care about that, but its extraordinary global subscriber base makes it an advocate for movie-viewing anyway.

The platform plays a critical role in disseminating a range of movies around the world, effectively joining Cannes in the process of advocating for movies to travel to different parts of the world  — a phenomenon that Cannes juror Will Smith smartly termed “global cinematic comprehension” in a press conference where he was perceived as taking issue with Almodovar’s complaints.

But nobody at Cannes can deny the appeal of the big screen experience. In the first early morning press screening of the festival, Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” screened to thousands of journalists in the Lumiere Theatre. The gorgeous, textured movie takes place at once in the ‘70s and the ‘20s, with cinematographer Ed Lachman brilliantly aping the language of silent film for one era and sunny, washed-out colors for the other one. Seen on a massive scale, the imagery became an immersive guide through the adventures of a child waking up to the world. The small screen will still deliver some of the understated delights of this soft-spoken movie, but that hardly negates the value of seeing it in a theater.

READ MORE: Cannes: French Government Worker Says Netflix Embodies ‘American Cultural Imperialism’

In other words, Cannes and Netflix represent two ends of the same spectrum, a dialogue rather than a contradiction. All of the conversations stemming from this contentious topic — against Netflix and for Cannes, for Netflix and against Cannes, or whatever other variation emerges from this year’s festival — coexist in an arena that recoils from allowing that conversation to dominate the air.

“It’s not about exhibitors versus Cannes,” said the film critic Jean-Michel Frodon as guests headed for the door. “It’s about cinema.” And while the business of cinema may keep changing, Cannes remains a critical reminder that nothing matters more than the art.

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