EXCLUSIVE: Even though Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos isn’t coming to the Cannes Film Festival this year, his disruptive approach to the movie business makes him as relevant as last year, when he delivered a speech to the industry. Sarandos has never been shy about pointing out the failings of old-guard ways of independent film distribution that might make for a frosty reaction from the most tradition-bound festival there is, but he took umbrage to a piece in The Hollywood Reporter this week which claimed that while upstart film company Amazon Studios has been warmly embraced on the Croisette, Netflix has been frozen out.
It’s hard to dispute the Amazon part. Roy Price and his team come here with five films in the Cannes rotation, and a lot of acquisitions momentum for films that are following the traditional theatrical release route before landing on the Amazon subscription streaming service. What Sarandos disputes is the assertion that he was heckled and made to feel unwelcome last year. The point led Sarandos to a longer, pointed conversation about everything from the wisdom of the French film subsidy system to an arcane law that prevents films released theatrically in France from being displayed on a subscription or pay-per-view service like Netflix for three years. All this is something French filmmakers are accustomed to, along with not being able to advertise their films on television as is done most everywhere else. To Sarandos, this comes down to a desire to be embraced by the Cannes crowd and be part of the status quo, even though it might not serve your movie, or the movie business in the long run. Equal time, anyone?
“It’s an inaccurate and certainly unfair characterization of what we’re doing,” Sarandos said of the THR article. “We are releasing a slate of films. It’s not a festival strategy, it’s not an awards strategy. Some of the movies in that slate are awards driven and festival friendly films, but it’s definitely not the driver of what we’re doing. We’re making real movies, big films with great filmmakers like David Michod and David Ayer, Christopher Guest, Bong Joon-ho. These are some of the greatest filmmakers working today, who have opted into this model so they can reach big audiences without making a financial sacrifice. Which is great for consumers, great for filmmakers, and great for film, ultimately.
“In general, that [festival] ecosystem has been very open and inviting to us and by that I mean Venice, Sundance, Telluride,” Sarandos said. “I would look at this as a fairly isolated bit of frostiness, if it’s happening at all. We didn’t really target any films for Cannes, so it’s not like we had some organized effort to be in Cannes that didn’t work out, or that we were blockaded in any way. What I don’t understand is the messaging. I think what we are doing is so strong and so good for film. You know, I’m not willing to play the game if it ultimately bad for consumers and ultimately, the old distribution models, even for festival-centric movies, are bad for consumers. For me to withhold access to our 81 million subscribers, so that a couple hundred thousand…literally a couple hundred people can see the movie in a theater, it makes no sense, business or otherwise.”
This might have been a different conversation had War Machine been submitted. Netflix upped the prestige-film ante considerably when it acquired the David Michod-directed political satire that stars Brad Pitt and would have been welcome by most traditional prestige film distributors. Sarandos acknowledged it’s the kind of edgy fare that primes the saliva glands of festival organizers. Playing for a Cannes berth wasn’t contemplated because the film wasn’t ready; it will be released on Netflix late in the year, but the exact date hasn’t been firmed and Sarandos said he has no idea if it will premiere at a festival. While he acknowledges that the adulation and warm feeling of a standing ovation from a festival crowd is important to a filmmaker, he believes it doesn’t outweigh the bigger picture. That, he said, is getting the largest audience for films. And while Netflix created a limited theatrical release for Beasts Of No Nation during awards season, Sarandos isn’t sure that will be a big priority going forward.
“As the subscriber base here grows, our ability to reach even greater audiences for smaller, more interesting films increases,” he said. “The idea that you optimize for a couple dozen screens, I don’t understand the sensibility of that. The independent film world has suffered from a lack of scale, from its inception to today. Todd Solondz, Whit Stillman and Woody Allen are great filmmakers, but most people don’t get to see their movies. At the time they are spending marketing, when critics are reviewing the films, that is the time people should be able to go out and see it, so that they can be part of the dialogue. Most of the population has no access to those films, for months and sometimes years. This Netflix model brings all the scale to a big summer tentpole movie like Bright, with Will Smith and David Ayer directing it, to the more interesting smaller filmmakers. That’s why I think we’ve been successful buying at festivals and working with filmmakers to bring these films to big audiences. I get that there’s a romance to being on the big screen. But there is an economic trade off that works to make independent cinema smaller, not bigger.
“A standing ovation at Eccles, or taking a bow on the Palais is something that is very hard to replicate,” Sarandos said. “Except for when your film is actually in the culture, being talked about around the world, the way Beasts of No Nation got talked about around the world. The millions of people who saw Beasts Of No Nation will probably be more than will see most films of that size, in their lifetime. We were able to aggregate an enormous viewing audience for a film that was in the zeitgeist. It was being discussed, not just for the filmmaking, but the topic of the film. That’s incredibly important if you’ve made a film that is socially relevant. The trade-off, for that one warm moment, in that one theater, versus the warm embrace of the world for your film, seems worth it. But I also think they should not be mutually exclusive. These festivals, Cannes included, are not celebrating distribution models. They are celebrating the art of film.”
Sarandos said the actual frost to his speech last year came down to a single detractor who raised his hand and charged Sarandos with endangering the European film subsidy system.
“One guy got up and took me to task, but it was completely false,” Sarandos said, “and that was the only negative feedback in the room. Nobody heckled. It was one guy who took a position that we would threaten the European subsidy system for movies, which, by the way, would not necessarily be a bad thing. But I answered the question and the result was a headline that didn’t accurately portray what happened in Cannes last year. We had a great Cannes last year, and got a great reception while we were there. I was particularly surprised at the characterization of “a warm embrace for Amazon and frosty reception for Netflix.” Nobody has done more to grow the independent film business around the world than Netflix.”
Sarandos isn’t making the trip to the Croisette this year. His acquisitions team will be here looking for titles, but Sarandos stayed in Los Angeles, citing a conflict in his schedule and two recent trips to France within the last month to launch the French language series Marseilles with Gerard Depardieu, as well as its film and TV lineup. That brought Sarandos to another arcane French film tradition that he just doesn’t understand. I didn’t really understand it, either.
“As a matter of national law, they have this chronology rule where, if a film opens in the cinema, it can’t be on a subscription or video on demand service, for three years,” Sarandos said. “This is horrific for film lovers. We bought the pay television rights for The Big Short, around the world. We are releasing it everywhere, except for France. Because it played in theaters, it can’t be on a subscription or video on demand service for three years. I don’t know how that is in the interest of film lovers, or filmmakers.
It sounds like a law that sounded good when movies enjoyed long theatrical theater runs, but that isn’t true anymore, even in France.
“Just like everywhere else in the world, they’re playing these movies for 30 to 40 days,” Sarandos said, “and then they’re gone. And then they’re gone from the culture for a long time. When we control the rights in France for a movie, we will never put it in a cinema, for that reason. We released Beasts Of No Nation in cinemas in the UK, throughout Africa, but not in France because of that law. It was built to protect the cinema.”
Sarandos chalked that up to being part of an arcane way of operating that makes one glow at Cannes, but doesn’t necessarily help movies.
“So once again, it is celebrating a room, instead of the film,” he said. “The festivals are supposed to celebrate the art of filmmaking. And what we’re doing is enabling artistic and difficult filmmaking like Cary Fukunaga did with Beasts Of No Nation, facilitating a large global audience for those films, and a financial model that assures that those filmmakers can keep making their movies. That is what I hope a film festival would celebrate,” Sarandos said.