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Showdown between Netflix and Cannes

Jochen Kürten
May 19, 2017

Controversy surrounds two Netflix productions that are part of the competition at the Cannes film festival. One screening was interrupted by boos. DW's Jochen Kürten recommends a more relaxed and flexible approach.

film still  Okja
The Netflix production "Okja" stars Tilda SwintonImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Neflix

This year's Cannes film festival jury president, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, dropped a historical bombshell at the opening of the prestigious event. He suggested that the two competing Netflix films should not win anything.

He could not imagine "the Palme d'Or nor any other prize being given to a film, and then not being able to see that film on a large screen," said Almodovar. Such comments were unprecedented: Jury members are normally sworn to objectivity and secrecy.

Netflix had previously refused a theatrical distribution of the films in France, where movies can be broadcast on TV only three years after they are shown in the country's cinemas.

Almodovar's provocative statement had its impact. The premiere of the first of the two controversial Netflix productions, "Okja," had to be interrupted Friday.  A technical malfunction left a curtain hiding part of the screen, encouraging critics to shout and whistle at the film.

"Ha, this (film) is really not made for the cinema," was the type of comment that could be heard.

Two Netflix productions in the competition

Among the 19 films competing for the Palme d'Or, the festival included two Netflix productions. Cannes' directors apparently didn't realize that the streaming giant's policies would lead to such a controversy.

In contrast to other video-on-demand providers such as Amazon, which is also represented in Cannes' 2017 competition as a co-producer, Netflix runs a strict business policy according to which Netflix films are only to be shown on their own subscription network after the Cannes premiere. The media company nevertheless happily accepted the publicity provided by a participation in the renowned film competition.

French cinema operators protest

French cinema operators thundered in protest. Cannes, a promotional festival for a US streaming service? That's a dishonor to cinema! Their talks with festival director Thierry Frémaux were apparently successful. New rules were quickly established: As of 2018, films must offer a theatrical distribution in France to be eligible for the competition.

Kuerten Jochen
DW's film expert Jochen Kürten

That however does not change the fact that the two Netflix productions, "Okja" by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho and "Meyerowitz Stories" by US indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, are premiering in Cannes.

The dispute is an expression of the current power struggles in the film industry's distribution system. For decades, the normal practice was to let films run in cinemas, then after a certain period they would be released on DVDs and finally, after a further period of time, air on TV. That allowed film producers to fetch more revenues through different markets.

New media channels and streaming services, especially those with the ambition of producing their own movies such as Netflix and Amazon, have been dismantling this long-established business model.

Two years ago at the Venice film festival, "Beast of No Nation," an impressive war drama produced by Netflix, was also part of the official competition. It led to strong debates as well.

'Okja' released in South Korean cinemas

The controversy wasn't as strong in Venice, however, perhaps because "Beast of No Nation" was also released in cinemas in Brazil, the US and the UK after the festival.

As for the current Cannes films, Netflix is apparently standing by its decision - at least for the European and French markets. A theatrical release is planned in South Korea.

Both positions are easy to understand. Netflix, as the producer of the film, has invested a lot of money into it and should therefore be the one deciding on the best way to market it.

On the other hand, the critics' fear that the festival will one day turn into a pure promotional platform for streaming companies is also understandable. The pleasure of seeing a film on the big screen would become something only accessible to a small elitist festival crowd.

Priority should be set on the quality of the films

A more flexible and relaxed attitude is advisable for the festival organizers and the streaming providers in this situation. For what would happen if "Okja" or "Meyerowitz Stories" turned out to be the strongest candidates for the Golden Palm? Almodovar would then have a problem. The decisive criteria for a film festival should be the quality of a film.

On the other hand, Netflix appears to be pushing the industry to a showdown. It's not as if "Okja" wasn't obtaining any theatrical distribution, since it's being released in South Korea.

One feels like calling on all involved parties to join forces, instead of digging their heels in and insisting on their dogmas. That can only damage cinematic art.

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