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Netflix’s Battle With Cannes: Why This Film Industry Showdown Can’t Find a Solution

So far, Cannes has yet to lure Netflix back to the negotiating table. But there are a few intriguing options it could pursue.

Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix poses for photographers following the screening of the film The Meyerowitz Stories at the 70th international film festival, Cannes, southern France2017 The Meyerowitz Stories Departures, Cannes, France - 21 May 2017

Ted Sarandos


Six months before Alfonso Cuarón won three Oscars, his Netflix movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it landed the Golden Lion. But “Roma” might have started its path to glory earlier in the year with the Palme d’Or, if the Cannes Film Festival programmed it in competition. However, that festival’s newly enacted rule required all competition titles to receive a theatrical release in France, disqualifying “Roma” from consideration, and the fallout led the streaming platform to pull the rest of its titles from the festival.

As Cannes gears up for its 2019 edition, there has been much speculation about how it might reconcile Netflix’s growing roster of top-shelf international cinema with pressure from French exhibitors to keep the country’s theaters safe from the encroaching threat of streaming.

At the same time, the company is facing a new surge of backlash to its limited theatrical approach, with no less than Steven Spielberg — who presided over the Cannes jury in 2013 — arguing for a change in Academy policy that could disqualify Netflix films from Oscar consideration.

While Cannes and the Oscars generally operate in very different ecosystems, these looming showdowns speak to growing pains across a global industry on the brink of major change. And while Cannes has been characterized as the old-school theatrical mindset against a 21st-century disruptor, the truth is much subtler and far from yielding firm results.

“This will be Episode 3,” Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux wrote to IndieWire in an email, referencing a saga that began for the festival in 2017, when Netflix cracked Cannes’ venerated competition slots with “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Okja.” Exhibitor backlash at the time was so dramatic that Cannes publicly announced its new policy before the festival ended, setting the stage for the streaming platform’s absence from the 2018 edition. Cannes has been hamstrung by a French law requiring a three-year theatrical window. Until that changes, Netflix has no imperative to play ball.

Ted Sarandos and Thierry Fremaux'Okja' photocall, 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 19 May 2017

Ted Sarandos and Thierry Fremaux at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017

Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

Fremaux added that, in the wake of last year’s edition, he remains open to negotiation. “A dialogue between Netflix and Cannes does exist, and I really want to find a solution,” he said. “Let’s see how it works this year.” A representative for the festival declined further comment.

Speculation about potential solutions has circulated for months, but much of it has been inaccurate. Fremaux denied one report suggesting a Cannes proposal that would amend its rule to require a theatrical release in France only for the film that won the Palme d’Or. Such a mandate would be unlikely to sway Netflix, given France’s extensive theatrical window. Netflix serves more than five million subscribers in France, and has shown no interest in delaying access for the purpose of a theatrical release.

Serge Toubiana, president of promotional and export body Unifrance, and a member of the Cannes board of directors, cited another proposal that Cannes has considered presenting to Netflix: Netflix could play films in competition, if it agreed to release them theatrically in France four months after releasing those titles on Netflix. At that point, Netflix would remove subscriber access for an undetermined period of time. “I hope Cannes and Netflix will find a compromise,” Toubiana said.

But that proposal falls short of wholly serving Netflix, French theaters, or even the audience — and Netflix prefers to dictate its own theatrical rules. Pathé was among the distributors that allegedly offered to handle “Roma” in France, much as Netflix was doing in the U.S. by four-walling theaters, but the streaming platform refused.

The company has declined to comment on the situation, aside from a widely circulated tweet in which it proclaimed its ability to provide “access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theaters,” among other factors.

The French cinephile community is divided on the issue. “All of us (also) watch movies on computers,” veteran French critic Jean-Michel Frodon tweeted. “But if they are movies, not audiovisual products, they were designed for the theatre. VOD is great, as were VHS and DVD. But the big screen must remain the priority for filmmakers. Netflix policy is a problem, not cinema online.”

Nevertheless, the situation forces Cannes to acknowledge its own limitations. “Our rule is too strong for them,” said Toubiana,  “We want to protect the system we have built in the long run, but it’s difficult, because the platforms are so strong now.”

He pointed out that Netflix’s subscriber base exceeds the one for Canal+, France’s longstanding pay-TV channel. At the same time, theatrical distribution remains a powerful element in French society, with 4,050 theaters across the country and $200 million tickets sold in 2018.

“[Netflix doesn’t] respect any rules,” Toubiana said. “They don’t pay taxes. So I think in two or three years, they will adapt their own regulations to respect the French system, because they want to invest in French cinema.”

This divide first presented itself at Cannes in 2015, when it hosted Sarandos for a talk meant to set the stage for Netflix’s future presence at the festival. During the Q&A, a French journalist criticized the streaming platform for basing its European operations in Amsterdam to avoid French subsidies imposed on other platforms. In the room, Harvey Weinstein defended Sarandos. “This is a guy who buys foreign-language movies and cares,” Weinstein said.

“The problem with our current movies on Netflix is that they have to wait so long after the cinema,” Sarandos said at the talk. “There are 300 movies getting released in France, and there are not enough weekends to support them all. After you wait a year, it’s just too long. We live in an age where the internet has attuned us to want whatever we want, wherever we want. Movies have been uniquely immune from that. So we’re trying to bring movies along with that.”

Netflix has yet to produce any feature-length work in France, but it has made significant progress with its original French-language series, and Sarandos will serve as a featured speaker at the French television conference Series Mania in late March.

It remains unlikely that France’s theatrical window will change dramatically in the near future. Last March, French culture minister Françoise Nyssen hired former television executive Dominique d’Hinn to compose a new plan. His report, which proposed a 13-15 month window, failed to yield any new regulations. Nyssen has yet to follow through on a threat to bring legislation to French parliament in the hopes of enacting permanent change.

As speculation about the next chapter continues, Netflix is gearing up for another year on the festival circuit with several high-profile, director-driven projects. The most anticipated of these — Martin Scorsese’s time-spanning mob movie “The Irishman” — would be a natural fit at Cannes, where Scorsese has been celebrated for decades. Sources at the company also expressed high hopes for Noah Baumbach’s currently untitled project starring Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson, his second with the streaming platform.

It’s unclear whether either title, or Steven Soderbergh’s Meryl Streep project “The Laundromat,” will even be ready in time for the May gathering. The rule could also impact Joshua and Benny Safdies’ A24-produced “Uncut Gems,” their follow-up to Cannes competition breakout “Good Time,” because Netflix acquired international rights; it is also unlikely to make the submission deadline.

Netflix doesn’t necessarily need a bump from the festival for its most anticipated films. “Roma” found plenty of acclaim at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. The Lido may be off-limits to Netflix in the coming year, as Italy’s Minister of Culture Albert Bonisoli signed a law in November requiring theatrical windows in the country similar to the rule in France. But Telluride and Toronto, both of which declined comment for this story, continue to maintain close relationships with Netflix and remain tangible fall launchpads for awards-season hopefuls.

Spike Lee Cannes

Spike Lee at Cannes in 2018


As for Cannes, opinions vary on just how much it can help a movie. Future Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner Spike Lee launched “BlacKkKlansman” at the festival, where he won the Grand Prix, and rode the buzz into a commercially successful summer release. Another hit at last year’s Cannes, Pawel Pawlikowski’s black-and-white romance “Cold War,” won Best Director at the festival and eventually bagged Pawlikowski Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. Other Oscar contenders that were met with divisive or outright negative critical response — such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Vice” — likely benefited from avoiding the discerning crowds of the Croisette.

“Cannes continues to be a great platform, but it’s not a must-have,” said one veteran publicist. “I don’t think they’re going to win this thing with Netflix.”

Most American distributors recognize that Cannes has limited impact on the U.S. market. “On the domestic side, Cannes does very little,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, whose company acquired “Shoplifters” and “The Square,” the two previous Palme d’Or winners and eventual foreign-language Oscar nominees. “The fact that you’re a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes does almost nothing for the general public. It’s really only meaningful to the diehard or the art film community, and you really have to get beyond that to have financial success.”

If the festival falls short of accommodating Netflix in competition, the streaming platform could find other outlets for launching work in town, including the independently run Directors’ Fortnight. Incoming artistic director Paolo Moretti said that the festival’s official policy does not prevent it from programming Netflix titles. “We will not exclude a film because it is supposed to be released on Netflix,” he said. “We recognize that something needs to be done to keep this from causing big problems for the French system of exhibition, but directors and films shouldn’t be the victim in this situation.”

In 2018, Netflix acquired one Directors’ Fortnight premiere, Romain Gavras’ “The World Is Yours,” and presented it on the platform later that year without a theatrical release. Netflix also acquired a Cannes competition entry, Best Screenplay winner “Happy as Lazzaro.” The company announced the purchase in grandiloquent fashion on the last day of the festival, which some interpreted as high-level trolling.

Moretti said Netflix representatives have yet to share any potential films for consideration at Directors’ Fortnight this year. “I would really love to tour the wide spectrum of films they’re producing right now and to understand their vision or their strategy,” said Moretti, who also runs a two-screen arthouse in the Loire region of Western France. “Cannes could be a very interesting platform for Netflix films. Releasing on the platform would be the best strategy for some of them, but festival exposure can benefit everybody. Theaters and platforms don’t have to be enemies.”

"The Other Side of the Wind"

“The Other Side of the Wind”


The biggest casualty of last year’s dustup may have been the late Orson Welles, whose unfinished final feature “The Other Side of the Wind” could have played at the festival in a restored version out of competition, if Netflix had allowed for it — alongside Morgan Neville’s documentary on the project, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.” Netflix could explore reopening its Cannes relationship through one of these lower-profile slots.

No matter what happens, Netflix’s dominance in the distribution landscape remains a major certainty. Fremaux is expected to make the rounds in Los Angeles in the coming weeks, which could lead to further discussion. For now, many people in the festival’s extended network would like to see the dialogue continue. “Polarizing the situation is not really an interesting attitude,” Moretti said. “After the ‘Roma’ situation, there is a whole bunch of new data to analyze and reflect on with an open mind.”

Cannes represents a focal point for celebrating movies as an art form, but its ability to single out the work of daring auteurs with the red-carpet treatment has often been out of sync with the realities of the distribution landscape. So long as Netflix continues to invest in filmmakers and projects that look beyond the formula for Hollywood blockbusters, it remains more of an ally to Cannes than either side may openly admit.

“We have a very good system for protecting cinema in the future,” Toubiana said. “Now, the world is changing. I think Netflix has to change, but we have to change, too.”

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