Thierry Fremaux, Director of the Cannes Film Festival announced that, while they can be exhibited, Netflix productions couldn’t compete for the Palme d’Or unless they are released in theatres in France. Not a particularly festive sentiment, but what the hell, it’s their party. Fremaux is known for implementing controversial – even eccentric – rules for the world’s most prestigious film festival. In 2015, he decreed that women attending the festival must wear heels, no flats allowed. This year he suspended the “morning of” advanced screenings to enhance the “suspense” of premiere showings and banned selfies from the red carpet, calling them “ridiculous” and “grotesque.” These are odd, self-serving cosmetics, but, again, those are his calls to make, although I don’t believe that his quirks tell the whole story.
The most contentious issue remains the exclusion of stream-originated films from competition, but it’s not a question of artistic merit or a platform, despite all the noise. Fremaux claims that stream-originated products are neither film nor TV, that “the history of cinema and the history of the internet are two different things.” And here is where I raise a penalty flag – this is the red herring that is exacerbating an ever-growing argument.
Streaming is like climate change, evolution – even gravity in some circles. Everyone has an opinion to which they are wholeheartedly entitled, but which will not change the course in which we are headed, not one tiny iota. If the Cannes Film Festival wants to exclude non-theatrical films from their awards, it is their call to make, but it won’t make streaming disappear. It is the future, like it or not, but this battle really about something much bigger.
Film festivals are trade shows to which distributors flock to gather product for their exhibitors, the movie theatres. Cannes is the largest and most prestigious festival and attracts the biggest fish. Obviously, if a producer like Netflix has no intention on showing their films in theatres, there are no deals to be made (strike one) and only publicity to be gathered (strike two).
Streaming may be the savior of the moviemaking business, but it’s a threat to film distributors, and until the big exhibitors can get a grip on stream services like Netflix, films produced by those services are competition that impacts their bottom lines and will therefore likely be excluded from reaping any headline-stealing kudos from festivals and industry sponsored awards machines like the Oscars.
The knockout third strike appears to go much deeper. Through a series of mergers and takeovers over the past 20 years the number of film distribution companies has diminished considerably. China’s WANDA Group swallowed AMC Entertainment, the largest North American chain, in 2012, making it the largest in the world. In 2015, Wang Jianlin, chairman of WANDA and once China’s richest man, unveiled plans for studio development and a festival in China. A subsidiary, Wanda Studios Quindao, made its first appearance at Cannes.
The previous year, Wang Jianlin had met with Thierry Fremaux in Paris while looking for possible development possibilities. The group had already installed Rose Kuo, former artistic director of the Los Angeles AFI Fest and executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (presenters of the New York Film Festival), as CEO of the planned Chinese festival. Without delving too deeply into all of the business intrigue, Wanda Group also expressed interest in partnering with Netflix, who was clawing at the door to enter the lucrative Chinese market. Without such a partnership, Netflix was warned they would face “fierce competition” and an unrestrained, freewheeling foreign streaming service could not possibly pass through Chinese government restrictions.
Last year, two Netflix films (Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories) were allowed to enter the competition class at Cannes, which caused a stir among attendees. Fremaux hoped that Netflix would see the light and decide to exhibit their films in cinemas, but that hope was doused. The opposing business models did not match and the exhibitors in control, including the behemoth Wanda Group, would get nothing. Naturally, Cannes has obviously sided with the exhibitors and Netflix is officially banned from competition.
This past year, the Chinese government (under threat of an impending trade war) tightened the noose on foreign investment, restricting the amount of money allowed to leave China. Many of Wanda Group’s development deals collapsed and some acquisitions sold. As of this morning (March 26) it was announced that a new Chinese streaming service – iQiyi Inc. – would start trading on Nasdaq next week. Owned by the Baidu Inc., the search titan, we shall see what happens with regard to festival showing and competition. iQiyi presents itself as an aspiring “technology-based entertainment giant” – will that eventually include film exhibition, or compete with it.
The entire controversy of “is it a movie or is it TV” is an orchestrated distraction in the higher stakes business world. It’s a food fight set up as a diversion, playing on outdated sentimentality. Spielberg can say streaming is for Emmys, not the Oscars, all he likes. Francis McDormand can decry, as she wins another award, that movies should be seen on the big screen. Fremaux can create all the restrictions he wants to elevate the prestige of Cannes. It will not affect the outcome of this unstoppable evolution because it is the puppet masters controlling the exhibitors who ultimately determine the purpose and design of film festivals (and industry awards).
Distributors may have a stranglehold on some festivals, but art is like water – it finds the path of least resistance and eventually makes its way through, under and around the barriers to reach the thirsty. If filmmakers can reach audiences without bowing to the pressure of having to be “the best” or winning an award, so much the better.
In the meantime, we can all watch for that moment when a female director shows up on the Red Carpet in sandals at an illegal pre-premiere press junket for a film she made on her phone – intended for streaming, not screening – and snaps a couple of selfies.