There is probably nothing that defines movies —or cinema—better or more purely for cineastes than Cannes. And as we embark on the 72nd edition of this iconic film festival, the definition of what really is a movie has never been a hotter topic of discussion, from Hollywood to the French Riviera and all points in between.
It has been a key argument in the so-called Netflix debate—what constitutes a theatrical film as opposed to a television movie?—to the point where even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences created a committee to try and define what should be eligible for an Oscar in the new era of streaming services. Netflix, for its part, is muddying the waters further by trying to have its cake and eat it, in terms of debuting movies day and date on their platform as well as in theaters, in order to ‘prove’ that they are not out to destroy theatrical exhibition. It is a slippery slope, and Hollywood and the French continue to take sides, particularly those in the exhibition community.
Cannes appears to be the last outpost of resistance thanks to France’s stringent rules, which require three years before a film can ever see the light of a TV screen (in America it is generally 90 days between theaters and SVOD—Streaming Video On-Demand). This seems dreamily appropriate for the place considered the birth of cinema, and Cannes festival toppers are hamstrung by this standoff in France whether they like it or not. But are they tilting at windmills?
For the second year in a row there will be no streaming movie in Competition from either Netflix or Amazon, although—somewhat ironically—the latter does have a television show (quel scandale!) in the official selection: Too Old to Die Young, from frequent Cannes fixture Nicolas Winding Refn. Two episodes from the series will be shown out of competition, which debuts in June. The issue was more acute with Netflix, which had two controversial Competition slots in 2017—Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—from world-class directors. Neither won an award but both caused an uproar leading to a new Cannes rule forbidding any film not adhering to the strict French exhibition policy to be outlawed from competition slots—a key sticking point for Netflix, which wants to play in every sandbox it can in order to win awards. Thus, among other titles, Cannes lost the opportunity to debut Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma last year (it eventually went to Venice where it won the Golden Lion), and this year there is also nothing from the streaming giant, neither in or out of competition (Babak Anvari’s Wounds appears in the unofficial sidebar Directors’ Fortnight).
It remains to be seen whether Netflix, which is sending its acquisition team, will turn one of the Competition films into a streaming product as they did in 2018 when they plucked Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro and Un Certain Regard winner Girl for their distribution platform and awards season plans—indeed, no one can stop the wolf from profiting from this particular hen house. Still, I have to side with the French cinema establishment on this one: they have clearly defined what constitutes a “movie” for their purposes and are sticking to it. Good for them, but they are probably—sadly—alone. The ever-evolving business has other ideas. Venice, Sundance, and other major festivals have no problem welcoming Netflix, Amazon and other streamers, as long as they deliver the goods—and the stars—to the red carpet.
Netflix clearly doesn’t want to play by anyone’s rules other than its own. For them, it isn’t black and white, but rather a gray area that defines theatrical versus television movies. They want to put everything on one service at one time (the “larder” as director Paul Schrader describes it), unlike movie studios and TV networks, which clearly delineate a divide between theaters and television, Oscars and Emmys. Netflix wants to be in both arenas, when and where it suits. They want to win in Cannes and to win at the Oscars on their own terms.
The strategy of luring A-list filmmakers like Cuarón and Martin Scorsese (his upcoming gangster epic The Irishman will be a lightning rod in this argument come the fall), giving them endless budgets and creative freedom, is undeniably effective. With Roma they almost pulled off a Best Picture win this year, and that’s when the industry and many in the Academy got very nervous. It would have been a game-changing, Earth-shattering event—but isn’t it inevitable at some point down the line? This is why, following the Cannes Film Festival’s example, it was urgent for the motion picture Academy to make a clear definition of what is a movie—and therefore what is eligible for an Oscar—and the Academy chose to stand pat, even though AMPAS president John Bailey said they would continue to study the “profound changes in our industry”, as well as have further discussions with their members on the issue.
So what exactly is the definition of a movie? Is it simply sitting in a theater and sharing the collective experience of what we are seeing on the screen? Certainly, that is what defines a theatrical movie. But times change and people consume film in so many different ways. Is sitting in your house watching a TV screen or your laptop the same thing? Can a “movie” that debuts in a streaming format be compared favorably to one designed to first play in theaters, a tradition as old as movies itself? Should everything be eligible for Oscars as long as it adheres to fulfilling a one-week qualifying run in LA, as it is now? That’s an easy one for deep-pocketed streamers.
Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, made waves last year in an interview with ITV, in which he attempted to simplify it for everyone. “Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money, in order to compete at Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films theatrically. And more of them are going to let the SVOD businesses finance their films, maybe with the promise of a slight, one-week theatrical window to qualify for awards. But, in fact, once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.”
Finally, he made his point even clearer. “I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nominations.”
The famed director, whose company DreamWorks was one of the entities behind this year’s Roma-upsetting Best Picture winner, Green Book, went on to opine that these streaming movies deserved “an Emmy, not an Oscar”. It is interesting to note that before he hit theatrical pay dirt with The Sugarland Express and Jaws, Spielberg got his directing start in episodic TV and then a much lauded 1971 TV movie called Duel, which won an Emmy for its sound editing and ran 74 minutes as an ABC Movie of the Week. However, when a distributor wanted to release it theatrically overseas, Spielberg went back into production, added several scenes and 16 minutes to the runtime, which is the version that now appears on the DVD release—he took his “TV movie” and turned it into a theatrical movie for different audiences around the world. Duel is still defined on IMDb by its roots, a “TV movie”. So what is it? Or is a movie just a movie no matter where and how you see it?
It would seem that Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are on opposite sides of the Netflix debate, but both are about as fervent believers in the theatrical experience as it’s possible to be. They recently teamed with Scorsese’s Film Foundation to sponsor a new 4K restoration of Don Siegel’s 1964 cult classic The Killers—starring Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan—which played at the 2018 Venice Film Festival in the Classics Section and recently played in early April to a packed turn-away crowd at the popular TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
Why do I bring this up? Well, Universal originally shot The Killers intending it to be the first ever movie made for television, but finally deemed it too violent, releasing it in theaters instead. Before the TCM showing, Dickinson, now 87 and never dreaming that she would still be talking about this film 55 years later at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, explained they all thought they were making a B-movie, one she defined in this instance as being for television. Clearly that wasn’t the case and the film (also given special treatment by the Criterion Collection) continues to be discovered in theaters. That is how I saw it for the first time, and how I will remember it—as a theatrical experience like no other, the way I personally define a movie. Others have their own definition, and that is what makes it all such an interesting debate: one man’s movie palace is another man’s Netflix.
By the way, Universal did make the actual first movie for television later that year and it debuted on NBC in October 1964. It starred John Forsythe and was called See How They Run. No one talks about that movie and no one is restoring it. Like so many films in the “larder”, as Paul Schrader put it, it was quickly lost in the crowd.