Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux is in an unenviable position. He needs, and loves, to bring name auteur filmmakers to his festival. There aren’t enough of them, and one of his auteur suppliers just pulled out of Cannes 2018. Last year, Netflix delivered Noah Baumbach (“The Meyerowitz Stories”) and 2011 Camera D’or jury head Bong Joon Ho (“Okja”). When the Official Selection is announced tomorrow morning, it won’t include Netflix films from Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”), Jeremy Saulnier (“Hold the Dark”), and Paul Greengrass (“Norway”).
That’s because the granddaddy of all festivals is in France, whose film industry maintains a complex, legally binding system of funding and releasing movies in which shares of revenues are given back to producers for production. It used to be the envy of the film world; now, it looks hopelessly out of date.
Any movie that plays in French theaters must wait 36 months before it’s made available on a subscription streaming service like Netflix. Three years! (The U.S. exclusive theatrical window is 90 days.) Logically enough, Netflix doesn’t want to show its films in French theaters … except for Cannes’. However, last year the French film industry forced the festival to agree that to qualify for competition, all films must also receive a proper theatrical release in France.
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Fremaux was banking that Netflix would allow its 2018 films to be shown out of competition. Five movies were under discussion. And Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos decided that it wasn’t fair to his world-class filmmakers; he wanted the competition section.
“We want our films to be on fair ground with every other filmmaker,” Sarandos told Variety. “There’s a risk in us going in this way and having our films and filmmakers treated disrespectfully at the festival. They’ve set the tone. I don’t think it would be good for us to be there.”
While Ted Sarandos is right to defend the Netflix auteurs, Orson Welles isn’t one of them.
Ultimately, this is Cannes’ loss. The Netflix filmmakers won’t suffer greatly; their films can play other festivals, from Venice to Telluride and Toronto. Next year, Netflix can submit the best of its roster to Sundance or Berlin, ahead of Cannes. And after last year, when some audiences booed the Netflix logo, Sarandos really doesn’t need any further abuse of his brand or his auteurs. If he’d brought his auteurs to the festival this year, he would have risked both.
However, there are two other Netflix films caught in this wrangling, and I believe that Sarandos should not punish them by withdrawing them from the festival spotlight. Neither were designated to play in competition: The finally finished “The Other Side of the Wind” was directed by a long-dead auteur, Orson Welles. Until Sarandos pulled the plug, it was slated to make its world premiere in a high-profile, out-of-competition Special Screening.
Welles co-wrote the screenplay with Oja Kodar, who co-starred alongside Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Random, and Dennis Hopper in the Hollywood satire, which follows a revered filmmaker (John Huston) attempting to mount his comeback. Welles charged Bogdanovich with finishing the film in the event of his death. Finally, with Bogdanovich as executive producer, Netflix backed the needed restoration and editing feats required by Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski, sound mixer Scot Millan, and negative cutter Mo Henry.
The other movie withdrawn by the streaming service is a companion documentary, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”), which was appropriately scheduled to be shown in Cannes Classics. Welles won Best Actor at Cannes in 1958 for “Compulsion,” and two of his films won Cannes prizes: 1952’s “Othello” and “Chimes at Midnight” in 1966.
In this case, Sarandos doesn’t have an auteur to protect; he’s only hurting Welles’ legacy to make a point. However, even those impacted by the decision can’t muster real criticism. As “The Other Side of the Wind” producer Frank Marshall told IndieWire last week, “The Other Side of the Wind” wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for Netflix.
“Even though we are not in competition, we are collateral damage if they decide not to go,” he said. “It was a mutual decision not to go to Cannes because we support Netflix. There would be no movie without them. Every studio and financier in town passed on this film, for years.”