For the third edition in a row, Netflix is nowhere to be seen at the world’s premier film festival. But after more than a year of pandemic-induced binge streaming, settling Cannes’ dispute with the digital platform is more critical than ever.
When Bong Joon-ho took his black comedy “Parasite” to the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, the veteran auteur voiced concern that the movie might be “too South Korean” for the audience. He needn’t have worried. The film elicited rave reviews and rapturous applause in Cannes, where it picked up South Korea’s first Palme d’Or. It would go on to become a global blockbuster, raking in more than $250 million worldwide, and make history again by becoming the first and only non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
It is hard to imagine “Parasite” taking such a trajectory without the Cannes springboard. The glitzy festival hosts the world’s biggest film market, and the Cannes imprimatur is still the most coveted in the trade. Last year, several big auteurs chose to feature in the Cannes 2020 line-up, knowing the festival wouldn’t even take place due to the pandemic, rather than head to Venice. Others waited a full year before submitting their work, in the hope of making it to the French Riviera this summer.
Naturally, the movie world is looking to Cannes to jolt it awake after more than a year of forced hibernation – and the festival is relishing the challenge and attention. Announcing this year’s lineup, Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Frémaux declared: “Cinema is not dead.”
Once again, Netflix was nowhere to be seen in Frémaux' selection of films. But the streaming giant is still the elephant in the room – all the more so now that the pandemic has accelerated profound transformations in the movie industry, strengthening the hand of digital platforms.
Cannes and Netflix have been at loggerheads since 2017, when the festival kicked off a very French fracas by including Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix-produced “Okja” in the race for the Palme d’Or. The decision prompted a furious backlash by the country’s theatrical exhibitors, who see Cannes as the guardian of the big screen and Netflix as a mortal threat.
Scrambling to stem the furore, Cannes warned Netflix that it must allow its productions on the big screen, where films are meant to be shown. But when it proceeded to show how at the screening of “Okja”, the result was an embarrassing fiasco: the curtain only half-raised, Tilda Swinton’s head chopped off, a deafening chorus of jeers and boos, and a forced interruption 10-minutes into the film, in the hallowed Grand Théâtre Lumière, of all places.
The next year, Cannes told Netflix it would only get an invite if it complied with French distribution rules. When the digital upstart refused, festival organisers offered it an out-of-competition slot, which Netflix also turned down. Instead, it took Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning “Roma” to Cannes’ oldest rival, the Venice Film Festival, which has no beef with the streamers.
When quizzed on the subject earlier this week, Frémaux took a swipe at rival film festivals. Without naming them, he said some had been too quick to allow movies made by streaming giants into their main competitions, without requiring a theatrical release. This, he said, had harmed cinema as a whole.
“2019 was a great year for cinema. Then 2020 was the most catastrophic year in the story of filmmaking,” Frémaux told journalists. He said the crisis had helped platforms like Netflix score a “deserved victory”, but left the rest of the cinema industry with little means of fighting back.
“Some festivals were first to open their doors a bit too freely, to people of whom we are not sure if they actually want cinema to survive,” Frémaux snapped. Citing Cannes' record at discovering filmmakers, he added: “What directors have been discovered by [streaming] platforms?”
Cannes’ hardline stance has won the respect and admiration of many cinema lovers, particularly in France, which cherishes its thriving film industry and abundance of movie theatres.
“Cannes has adopted a courageous position that is coherent with its own definition of what constitutes a cinema feature, as opposed to a TV movie,” said French filmmaker and screenwriter Nathalie Marchak. “It’s a strong stance in defence of the movie theatres.”
The continuing standoff, however, is proving costly for both Cannes and Netflix. The world’s biggest film festival is surely aching to get hold of films like Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”, which is distributed by Netflix, while the streaming giant is missing out on Cannes’ unrivalled prestige and media glare. But it’s the filmmakers and producers caught up in the tussle who are paying the real price.
“Of course it is unfair for films that are bought up by the digital platforms and therefore cannot enjoy theatrical distribution,” Marchak told FRANCE 24. “There are marvellous movies that only find space on the streaming platforms and you can’t blame the producers for making that choice.”
The people's choice
And what about the viewers’ choice? According to filmmaker Mark Cousins, giving people the ability to choose between the big screen and the small screen should be a guiding principle of the industry as it tackles the challenges of the post-pandemic world.
A decade after releasing his epic 15-hour documentary series “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” Cousins returned to Cannes this week with an intriguing follow-up that examines where cinema has been heading in the 21st century. Created during lockdown, “The Story of Film: A New Generation” discusses more than 90 films that have extended the language of film and taken the medium in new directions.
“For the benefit of the audience, people should have a choice, whether to see something for the first time on the big screen or on the small,” Cousins told FRANCE 24. “If people want to stay home, especially if they have kids and want to eat pizza or whatever they want to do, that’s fine and I do that. But people who want to see a film on the big screen should be given a chance to do so.”
The Belfast-born, Edinburgh-based director said France should be proud of its robust cinema attendance and had every right to defend a cherished part of its culture.
“If here in France you’ve got an audience that wants to see the epic, the sublime of cinema, then ‘bravo’, long may it last,” he said. “It does damage cinemas if the big films have only one channel to audiences. Cinemas are quite right to say this is hurting them. The reason they’re right is because it’s unnecessary hurt. People should be given the choice.”
Netflix should also be credited for doing “a lot of good stuff”, Cousins said, urging both sides to compromise. “There’s a touch of machismo here, a bit of sabre-rattling between Cannes and Netflix,” he added. “They should kiss and make up.”
It’s a view shared by this year’s Cannes jury head, US filmmaker Spike Lee, who made “Da 5 Bloods" for Netflix last year and was unfazed when quizzed on the subject earlier this week.
“Cinema and screening platforms can coexist,” Lee told reporters at the Palais des Festivals. “At one time, there was a thinking that TV was going to kill cinema,” he added. “So, this stuff is not new.”