Culture

Netflix isn’t absent at Cannes. It’s everywhere

A scene from Babak Anvari's "Wounds," screening in the Directors' Fortnight, Netflix one film at Cannes this year. Photo courtesy of La Quinzaine des réalisateurs

CANNES, France: If you’re going to earnestly shout “Vive le cinema!” the Cannes Film Festival is the place to do it. That’s what Quentin Tarantino declared from atop Cannes’ red-carpet stairs on his way into the premiere of “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” his affectionate ode to the movie industry.

The movie, aglow with nostalgia for the halcyon days of 1969 and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, encapsulates what’s now almost extinct in Hollywood: a big-budget, movie star-led original epic. It’s Tarantino’s widescreen retort to anyone who would argue movies are diminished in the age of streaming.

Nowhere is the art of movies more celebrated, and taken seriously, than Cannes. “Vive le cinema!” is more or less the festival’s ethos and rallying cry. Along with the rise of streaming, Cannes has increasingly had the pitch of a battlefield, one where differing visions for the soul of cinema is bitterly contested.

At this year’s festival, which concludes Saturday with the presentation of the Palme d’Or, Netflix is for the second straight year largely absent from Cannes.

After the festival, bowing to pressure from French exhibitors, declared films needed French theatrical distribution in order to compete for the Palme, Netflix withdrew, refusing to hold its films off its platform for the 36-month window, as stipulated by French law.

That said, throughout the festival the streaming giant has perpetually loomed just off-screen, out of frame but not out of mind.

Many of the world’s foremost filmmakers, from Alejandro Inarritu to Pedro Almodovar, have weighed in. The pluses and minuses of a Cannes without Netflix has been a regular conversation in beachside soirees and throughout the halls of the festival hub, the Palais des Festivals.

Many would like to see an end to the Cannes-Netflix cold war.

“Netflix is doing a great job,” Inarritu, the head of this year’s jury, said at the outset.

“Why not give people the choice to experience cinema?”

Inarritu, whose “Birdman” skewered the dominance of superhero movies, praised Netflix for backing the kinds of films the major studios have mostly given up making.

In an interview with The New York Times, he went further.

“We are all letting this medium die, and just becoming a franchise-entertainment park and if those studios, distributors and exhibitors don’t find a way forward, Netflix will eat them alive.”

This year’s festival has been typically vibrant in new voices and old masters. It hasn’t lacked for exciting breakthroughs (Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), top-notch genre filmmaking (Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”) or Hollywood glitz (Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman”). Some still believe this year’s Cannes would be better if Netflix had a starring role.

Veteran producer Cassian Elwes, whose credits include Netflix’s “Mudbound,” said keeping Netflix out of the festival was hurting business. The Cannes market, which runs alongside the festival, is where many movies (finished or in development) are bought and sold.

“Cannes is in total disrepair. Business is flat and most of the films screening here are irrelevant in the U.S. marketplace,” Elwes said on Twitter. “Both sides, [market] and festival, need to realize they are codependent and figure out a solution and quick. Keeping the streamers out is self-defeating.”

Netflix still has an acquisitions team in Cannes. Though it hasn’t announced any buys, it may well still. A study conducted by the Sorbonne captured just how vital Netflix has been to festival marketplaces. Its researchers found that 39 percent of Cannes premieres since 2009 have gone on to stream on Netflix, although most first had theatrical runs.

Cannes’ loss has been Venice’s gain. Last year, Netflix withdrew, among other titles, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” after the two sides were unable to find a solution. Cannes is already under pressure because many films have lately preferred fall festival debuts, closer timed to Oscar season.

Missing out on “Roma,” which won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and became arguably the most critically acclaimed film of the year, hurt.

Netflix and Cannes have since continued discussions with no results. Though they were reportedly not ready in time for Cannes, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” were rumored possibilities that would have surely been major gets for the festival.

Almodovar, who premiered his “Pain and Glory” to strong reviews in Cannes, is among those happy to see someone standing up to Netflix. He considers the dwindling number of theaters in his native Spain a crisis. “Fortunately, we have a different country in France,” Almodovar said. “France is the greatest defender of the large screen, and I think it’s the French industry that’s going to deliver this battle against the streaming platforms.”

Netflix has drawn protesters at the Berlin Film Festival, but France and Cannes has been its most challenging market despite more than 5 million subscribers here. When Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos spoke onstage in Cannes in 2015, he was heckled. (Harvey Weinstein dramatically came to his defense.)

Amid the uproar over the inclusion of two Netflix releases in 2017, Bong’s “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories,” some festivalgoers booed the Netflix logo. Others cheered.

Cannes’ Netflix conundrum may only get more pronounced when Disney, WarnerMedia and Apple all later this year roll out their own streaming platforms. After premiering the first two episodes of his Amazon series “Too Old to Die Young,” director Nicolas Refn said, “The studios are getting ready for ultimate streaming. I think that’s common knowledge.”

That increased competition, though, might also give Cannes more leverage. The festival remains an unparalleled global stage, one much sought after by filmmakers.

“The streamers are going to have their own survival of the fittest scenarios because how many can you subscribe to?” said Tom Bernard, co-chairman of Sony Classics. “As diverse as the distributors are these days, I think that the streaming services are just as diverse.”

There are already signs of a thaw. Netflix does have one film at Cannes in Babak Anvari’s “Wounds.” It’s playing in the Directors’ Fortnight, a separate but concurrent section at Cannes run independently by the French Directors Guild.

Refn, for one, was ready to declare the dawn of a new era.

While some television series and made-for-TV movies have debuted before in Cannes, his show is the first streaming series to premiere at the festival.

He called it “year zero.”

“This is the future, which is streaming,” Refn said.

“Now Cannes has changed. It has mutated into the future. With that comes limitless possibilities.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2019, on page 12.

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