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Why Cannes must get Netflix

Keeping the streaming model out of the festival is a severely anti-art stance

A still from ‘Okja’.
A still from ‘Okja’.

The old duel between Netflix and the Festival de Cannes intensified last week, with festival director Thierry Frémaux sticking to the edict of allowing only those films that have been released in French theatres into the hallowed competition category. Netflix reacted by withdrawing its titles from every category, and that includes new films by Alfonso Cuarón and Paul Greengrass.

Can the Festival de Cannes, starting 8 May, afford to lose big names? Will film-makers keep their best work for the big screen, so they don’t miss out on the artistic scrutiny of the Cannes jury?

There’s no easy resolution to this conflict, which more or less summarizes the future of cinema. Snubbing Netflix is bad news for the future of the festival.

It’s a battle between the where and how of the cinema experience and the what of it—what matters is the story and not how you view a film, argues Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandon. It’s a battle between the free market approach to film distribution (Netflix titles like Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories were part of the festival last year—they released in theatres while simultaneously being streamed online) and the purist, big-screen approach.

The Meyerowitz Stories

Christopher Nolan, the most famous espouser of the 75 mm experience, may have sympathy from film lovers all over the world, but the decision not to allow Netflix titles into competition seems downright discriminatory. Online streaming platforms have made films without the pressures of a studio or big producers, and accessible to film lovers everywhere. To alienate Netflix is to deny the artistic potential of films because they reach homes. The elite view that cinema has to be all-encompassing is magical and romantic, but it is not the only way forward for cinema. Frémaux is perhaps influenced by the French film distribution system itself, but how can the Cannes film festival afford to be nativist?

It is ironic that the year Netflix is out of Cannes, the festival has welcomed back Danish film-maker Lars von Trier, many years after it excluded him for a politically incorrect statement about Adolf Hitler in 2011. His new film, The House That Jack Built, is in the Out of Competition category. Von Trier and his other brilliant Danish contemporary, Thomas Vinterberg, created the Dogme 95 manifesto in the early 1990s. Dogme 95 was a manifesto of rules to make films based on story, acting and themes, and eliminate the use of elaborate special effects or technology. They sought to empower the director and writer and disempower the studio.

By not embracing the Netflix model as an authentic and powerful platform for films, Cannes is empowering a monolithic way of film distribution.

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