Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Frémaux this morning was asked to address the thorny Netflix issue that has been front and center at the event for the past few years. Beginning his remarks about the current situation and its potential evolution, he quipped, “Roma, I’ll remind you, was a Cannes Film Festival film, but one we showed in Venice.” The joke didn’t go down quite as hoped with the press corps. Frémaux responded to the crickets, “That one still makes me laugh, but not you.”
While Frémaux stressed that Netflix didn’t have any features ready for the 2019 edition of Cannes, this is the first year since 2015 that the festival won’t screen a Netflix or Amazon film. The latter will show two episodes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s TV series Too Old To Die Young, but it’s interesting to note that Cannes is moving in the opposite direction to most A-list festivals, which increasingly show the streamers’ movies. What’s also interesting to consider is that this is becoming a decision taken as much by the streamers as the festival itself.
Two years ago, Cannes ran two Netflix titles in Competition and was met with major backlash from the French industry, particularly exhibitors, given that the streamer does not release its films theatrically. This in turn prompted Cannes to require that all films selected for Competition be guaranteed a French theatrical release. While films such as Alfonso Cuaron’s ultimately Oscar-winning Roma were offered slots on the Riviera in 2018, Netflix refused to budge on the theatrical issue which is particularly tricky in France because of an arcane windowing system which throws up a three-year roadblock up between when a film screens in cinemas and when it can move to SVOD. Ultimately, Netflix removed all of its movies from consideration in any section last year and Cannes’ loss on Roma was Venice’s gain.
Today, Frémaux said, “The rule is simple and the history is simple. Two years ago we chose two films from Netflix… We wanted to bring the debate to the heart of the world’s biggest film festival and in effect open this discussion. At the time, perhaps overly sure of ourselves,” the festival thought it could ask Netflix for, and obtain, a theatrical release, he said.
Despite the winding road, Frémaux was keen to insist that relations between the organizations are far from frosty. “There is no battle between us, we just saw them recently and spoke the day before yesterday, but the rule of the festival is that for competition films, they have to come out theatrically in the festival’s territory. They aren’t there yet and we understand that very well… And we aren’t there, I dare say, far from it — especially when we receive the encouragement of Steven Spielberg or Jean-Luc Godard and exhibitors and a great many filmmakers. We don’t want to accept films in competition that won’t meet audiences in theaters.”
Cannes President Pierre Lescure, the former chief of Canal Plus, noted, “We have to reflect on it. It’s not just a match that played out last year between us, Roma, Netflix and Venice, and that doesn’t play out this year because there are no films. Netflix is in spectacular development.” But, said Lescure, the streamer is more concerned with reassuring its subscribers and shareholders about the future. “Their real problem today, a year after Roma and two years after their arrival in Cannes… is to prepare the opinion of their clients and shareholders for the arrival of other giants.”
Of Cannes’ position, Lescure added, “We did want to say, ‘There is a revolution and evolution, new actors in the market, led by Netflix. We accept that.’ They are not going to play the rules of the game of France… But we remain vigilant because it is an essential movement that will change our habits and will change more in the future with the new players.”
Regarding the French windows system, the pay-TV veteran said he fully expects an evolution in the next three to five years. “Generally speaking, we can’t have fixed windows for all films. We have to find rules that are more supple and evolving.” Windows, he also opined, will begin to shift for different types of films based on budget, style, character and form. “The whole industry will have to face that.”