Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Netflix breaks into Cannes

On 13 April, the line-up for the Cannes Film Festival was announced. It was revealed that the Competition section would include Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, Hong Sang-soo’s Clair’s Camera, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled—titles which had featured in IndieWire’s “50 Films That Have A Serious Shot At The 2017 Line-up”. That list also included Okja, by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, of which IndieWire wrote: “Netflix is scheduled to unleash the film on June 28, which makes Cannes the ideal platform—if the festival can get over its alleged resistance to Netflix.”

The reasons for this alleged resistance are evident. Unlike Amazon (described by Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux last year as “good for cinema”), which gives its films a proper theatrical run before releasing them online, Netflix’s policy is to release the film online the day it lands in theatres (which is seldom). This would pretty much destroy the idea of exclusivity that comes with a Cannes selection. Instead of waiting for the title to arrive months later via a festival or a repertory house, viewers around the world may be able to see it along with or, even more gallingly, before the audiences at Cannes. L’horreur!

Cannes’ misgivings about the streaming giant appear to have been overcome, or have at least been kept aside for the time being. Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories will be the first films distributed by Netflix to be in Competition at Cannes. Having bitten the bullet, Frémaux has been neatly sidestepping pointed questions about Netflix. “I chose Bong Joon-ho’s film because he’s a very good film-maker,” he told the ScreenDaily website. “I hardly spoke to Netflix.” And he told Variety: “The film world is like a big community and in this big community, everyone has a place to exist. We are happy that at Cannes, this discussion (about Netflix and digital versus theatrical distribution of films) can unfold.”

Netflix chief executive officer Ted Sarandos may well have heaved a sigh of relief after the Cannes line-up was announced. The year 2016 didn’t have any Netflix films in the line-up—Amazon had five—but that was still better than 2015, when Sarandos found himself in the midst of a chilly Q&A session after he delivered an address at the festival. Asked whether he would release Netflix subscriber figures, Sarandos said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” “I was expecting it,” the journalist responded. Things deteriorated swiftly from there. Someone asked, “Are you aware that in five, 10 years you will destroy the current ecosystem of film production in Europe?” This prompted Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, a central figure in the last industry-altering movement before Netflix—the 1990s independent film boom—to jump in and defend Sarandos.

Exhibitors in Europe and the US have grown increasingly wary of Netflix, which has shown little interest in the idea of a traditional release “window” (a theatre release, then DVD, and then streaming). Days after the Cannes announcement, the National Federation of French Cinemas criticized the move, calling on Netflix to confirm that these films would get a theatrical release (recent reports suggest they might get a limited arthouse theatre release). Jean Labadie, president of French distributor Le Pacte, accused Netflix of promoting “the death of the theaters”—streaming services in France are supposed to wait for 36 months after the theatrical release; the window is 90 days in the US. Last year, the National Association of Theatre Owners in the US expressed concern over Netflix’s deal with luxury-theatre chain iPic Entertainment, which would allow simultaneous online and theatrical releases of its films.

For indie and arthouse directors who aren’t militant about their film being seen “the way it’s supposed to be”, there are obvious advantages to the Netflix model: upfront payment, and an exponentially larger (potential) audience. But for those with no financial or artistic stake in the film production business, the question is simple: How much do you value the big-screen experience? In India, which has just a handful of international film festivals and virtually no repertory houses, the debate is largely moot—we’ll take world cinema anywhere we can get it. But what about when the new Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman (which Netflix is distributing), comes around? Will it release in theatres at all? And even if it does, does it matter to you whether you watch it online or in a theatre?

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

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