Netflix is clashing with the Cannes Film Festival over the future of cinema

In the red corner…
In the red corner…
Image: AP Photo/Joel Ryan
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In a small, opulent city on the French Riviera, the fight for the future of cinema is playing out before our eyes.

The Cannes Film Festival announced today that it will allow two Netflix films, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, to enter competition for the first time ever despite protests from film purists. But the festival also declared that, starting in 2018, all competition films must receive a theatrical release in France, essentially banning future titles from the streaming service unless it changes its online-only distribution model.

The announcement perfectly encapsulates the two major schools of thought on how the film industry’s future should take shape: Tradition vs. innovation. In other words, the allure of the theater vs. the convenience of your couch.

In the blue corner is the Cannes Film Festival, often considered the most prestigious meeting of auteurs on the planet. Every year, filmmakers from around the world descend on the coastal town to debut recent projects between luncheons, black-tie events, and beach parties. Screening a film at Cannes is an immense honor and a sign that you’ve been accepted by the industry’s elite.

In the red corner is Netflix, the global streaming service and new kid on cinema’s block who’s ruffled some feathers with its decidedly non-traditional film distribution model. Netflix typically doesn’t show its movies in theaters, and when it does (in order to qualify for awards shows), it debuts them the same day they’re released online to its 90 million subscribers. Film purists believe this strategy demeans the medium and ultimately hurts the business.

French law, meanwhile, forbids films with a wide theatrical release from appearing on streaming services for three years. Obviously, that’s not a law Netflix is willing to obey.

When Cannes first announced that the two Netflix films would screen in competition this year, the backlash was swift. France’s film exhibitors guild denounced the decision, arguing that the streaming service bypasses the country’s “regulation and fiscal obligations.”

Netflix reportedly tried to release the two films temporarily in French theaters, but the festival said no agreement was ever reached. “The Festival de Cannes asked Netflix in vain to accept that these two films could reach the audience of French movie theaters and not only its subscribers,” the festival said in a press release.

France’s three-year rule is bizarrely long, and many in the French film community want to see it shortened. Netflix is not going to overhaul its signature distribution model solely to gain the acceptance of Cannes, but it does seem willing to adjust film releases in certain situations in order to qualify for prestigious honors. For instance, the streaming service put Beasts of No Nation, an Oscars hopeful, in a select number of theaters to meet award eligibility in 2015.

The Oscars shut the film out completely, proving that Netflix still has a long way to go before it’s truly welcomed by the industry it’s trying to disrupt. On Facebook, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reacted strongly to the new Cannes ruling.

“The establishment closing ranks against us,” he wrote.