CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 14: Atmosphere of photographers attends the screening of
Photographers await arrivals at the Cannes Film Festival © Getty

The scene is set for Cannes 2019. A star-studded jury featuring Alejandro González Iñárritu, Elle Fanning and Yorgos Lanthimos is ready to ascend the red-carpeted stairway of the Palais des Festivals. The yachts are moored in the harbour; the deck chairs are lined up at the Cinéma de la Plage. But as for this year’s film line-up, there’s one notable absence: Netflix.

Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat and Martin Scorsese’s crime drama The Irishman are two of the most notable no-shows at this year’s event. And though both were reportedly not ready in time, their absence has raised eyebrows in the film world. The lack of Netflix-financed films such as these on the Croisette this year is emblematic of an ongoing dispute between the festival and the streaming giant, one that is likely to have ramifications for the future of cinema — and, in particular, who can make money from it.

The central sticking point is the so-called theatrical window. Since 2018, a rule has been in place stating that for films to compete at Cannes, they must be shown in cinemas in France. French law, meanwhile, mandates that films can’t be shown on a streaming platform until three years after their cinematic release. Indeed, Cannes announced the new rule before its 2017 edition had even ended, a response to the vocal outcry from French exhibitors about the inclusion of the Netflix films The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja in the competition that year.

Perhaps the most contentious outcome of the negotiations so far was the absence from last year’s Cannes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a film whose rich aesthetic was particularly well suited to the big screen. With a three-year wait for on-demand streaming out of the question for Netflix, Cannes would only permit it to show out of competition. In response, Netflix removed all of its films from the festival that year, and took Roma to the Venice Film Festival instead, where it won the Golden Lion. It then went on to win three Oscars, as well as Best Film at the Baftas.

It’s easy to see why Netflix is continuing to refuse to comply with Cannes’ rules. What’s the point of subscribing to the service if you don’t get instant access to its content? Both the streamer and the festival declined to comment for this article, but Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said at Cannes in 2015: “We live in an age where the internet has attuned us to want whatever we want, wherever we want. Movies have been uniquely immune from that.”

Though it’s the most prominent, Netflix isn’t the only streaming platform grappling with the implications of the theatrical window in the internet age. Amazon has in previous years taken a more cinema-friendly approach, giving its acquisitions Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick a 90-day theatrical release before allowing its Prime customers to stream them online. However, new Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke has hinted that the company’s strategy might be about to change, and that more future Amazon Studios films will be exclusively available to subscribers without showing in theatres at all.

Many French cinema owners, who are putting pressure on Cannes to resist Netflix et al, see the streamers’ disruptive attitude as an incursion into their territory. “We have nothing against Netflix or new platforms,” says Marc-Olivier Sebbag, chief executive of the Fédération Nationale des Cinémas Français. “The problem is that Netflix wants to have the benefits of the cinema industry without contributing to it.”

People protest against Netflix before they attend the premiere of the film
A protest against Netflix at the Berlin Film Festival in February

There have also been protests elsewhere against Netflix films’ inclusion in festivals. At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the premiere of the Netflix-backed Elisa y Marcela was picketed by cinema owners. And in the UK, cinema chains expressed outrage that Roma won the top prize at the Baftas. J Timothy Richards, chief executive of Vue International, wrote an open letter to the Academy to express his concern at their decision-making process. “No director grows up dreaming of making a movie for the small screen,” says Richards.

But supporters of Netflix point out that cinemas — particularly large chains — have not always been eager to champion non-English-language films. As Cuarón told journalists at the Golden Globes this year: “How many theatres [would show] a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release?”

If Netflix is to continue to support diverse and novel film-making, its competitors might not be so much mainstream cinemas as independent ones. But Philip Knatchbull, chief executive of Curzon Cinemas, responded to Richards’ letter with his own, which acknowledged the benefits of the streaming era. “The theatrical window may well serve ‘tent-pole’ studio films but many smaller independent and foreign language films need a bespoke approach . . . There is room for more flexibility,” he wrote.

After all, there are still plenty of directors who are more than happy to work with Netflix. As Amelia King, a documentary producer who has experience of working with the streaming platform, tells me: “Film-makers love Netflix. The general consensus is: ‘This is what we’ve all been waiting for’.”

Meanwhile film-maker Ava DuVernay recently tweeted in appreciation of Netflix’s distribution of her upcoming series When They See Us, which centres on the “Central Park Five” rape case of 1989: “One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far/wide.”

However strong the feeling against Netflix at Cannes, there will be an opportunity to watch one film that will be distributed by the streamer: Wounds by Babak Anvari, a thriller that stars Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson. It will be playing at Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel programme that doesn’t offer prizes but is nonetheless one of the key spaces outside the official selection.

Here, it’s the French Directors’ Guild that makes the decisions. “It’s a good example of the priority we give to the director’s work,” says Paolo Moretti, artistic director of the programme.

A bigger problem lurks just around the corner for Netflix: the rise of other streaming platforms. Amazon’s new attitude might help them, but Apple, Warner and Disney are all about to launch their own equivalents, which, depending on the strategy each chooses to take, could further reshape the relationship between streaming services and film festivals. What is today a tense negotiation between Cannes and Netflix could turn out very differently once there are more players in the field. As Vue’s Richards puts it: “No industry can ever afford to be complacent.”

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos

Get alerts on Film when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article