Brow Beat

In the Battle of Cannes vs. Netflix, It’s Hard to Root for Anyone

The fight for the future of the movies presents an Alien vs. Predator conundrum.

Posters of Netflix original films.
Photo illustration by Slate. Movie posters by Netflix.

The war between Netflix and Cannes has gone from cold to hot. Last month, Cannes Film Festival head Thierry Frémaux announced that Netflix films would be banned from the festival’s competition lineup, although they’d still be eligible for its other, less prestigious sections. Now Netflix’s Ted Sarandos has told Variety that the streaming giant will be skipping Cannes entirely this year, effectively taking their ball and going home.

“We hope that they do change the rules,” Sarandos told Variety. “We hope that they modernize. … But we are choosing to be about the future of cinema. If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine.”

As I argued on Slate’s Culture Gabfest last week, the battle between Netflix and Cannes presents something of an Alien vs. Predator conundrum. Frémaux’s insistence on the primacy of theatrical exhibition—the breaking point was Netflix’s refusal to open Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, both of which were in last year’s competition lineup, in French theaters—is catnip to many cinephiles, but France’s protectionist laws, which require a 36-month window between a film’s theatrical opening and its streaming debut, seem like the last gasp of a rapidly dying era. And the manner in which Frémaux handed down the Cannes ban, at the same time as the festival announced it was putting the kibosh on red-carpet selfies, was high-handed and doctrinaire. (In other words, it was French.)

But it’s also increasingly evident that Netflix doesn’t just want to “disrupt” the business of showing movies in theaters. They want to destroy it. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told reporters last year the company wanted to “unleash film,” but he also spoke of the current state of exhibition with glib contempt: “How did distribution innovate in the movie business in the last 30 years? Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it.” (For one thing, the last 30 years saw the transition from celluloid to digital distribution, which is arguably the most massive technical shift since the conversion from silent films to sound.) Amazon Studios doesn’t have a problem giving films like Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick a full run in theaters before making them available to Prime viewers, but Netflix’s theatrical releases are nominal at best—if you lived in one of the 11 cities where it was possible to see Dee Rees’ epic Mudbound on the big screen, all the better for you—and their offer of a one-week run in a handful of theaters to satisfy Cannes’ requirements hardly qualifies as a good-faith offer.

There’s a compelling argument to be made that people outside those 11 cities would never have seen Mudbound regardless, given the historical difficulty with drawing art house audiences to—how shall we put this?—films about black people, and streaming made it available to more people more quickly than the laborious process of an awards-pegged platform release would have. But the far less conventional Moonlight expanded to 650 theaters and earned more than $27 million in the U.S. alone, where Mudbound, despite the repeated encomiums of a dedicated handful of critics and its eventual four Oscar nominations, seemed to quickly sink out of sight. And woe betide the Netflix movie that’s not yoked to an awards campaign: If you’ve heard of The Polka King, Open House, When We First Met, Irreplaceable You, Paradox, or almost any of the other two dozen or so original movies Neflix has theoretically released since the beginning of 2018, well, the chances are fairly good that you cover movies for a living. (And if you’re familiar with any of them, it’s probably because they debuted at film festivals.) The exception, of course, is The Cloverfield Paradox, which got a splashy surprise unveiling in the middle of the Super Bowl, but that was a movie Netflix acquired only after Paramount decided to dump it—not because they wanted to disrupt theatrical exhibition, but because it was too bad to release in theaters.

Because Netflix’s landing pages are algorithmically generated and the company is loath to share information, there’s no easy way to systematically examine what the company chooses to promote to its users, but personal experience and anecdotal information bear out the notion that few of these movies get so much as a push in the recommended section. (I have to click to the third page of Netflix Originals to find the first title that isn’t a TV series or a comedy special, and if Netflix thinks I’m bound to like Game Over, Man!, well, the algorithm could use a little more tweaking.) They’re available, sure, but as with much else on the internet, that availability means little if users aren’t directed to them. It doesn’t matter if everyone can watch a movie if no one actually does.

Take a movie called I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a Netflix original that Sarandos cites as proof of the company’s dedication to cinema. The movie, the directorial debut of Blue Ruin and Green Room star Macon Blair, opened the Sundance Film Festival in 2017—Sundance having thus far shown no issues with giving streaming-only releases its biggest of screens. I Don’t Feel … went on to win the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, its highest honor. But when it debuted on Netflix a month later, the silence was deafening. A festival darling had become just one more needle in Netflix’s nigh-infinite haystack. Blair got to make his movie, and star Melanie Lynskey got the role of a lifetime, but a filmmaker’s next project depends on the success of his or her previous one, and Netflix doesn’t share their data even with the people who make their content. So unless Blair wants to make his next movie for Netflix, he’s virtually starting from scratch.

It’s better that movies are made than not made, and to the extent that Netflix brings movies into the world that would not otherwise have existed—whether they’re bootstrap indies or Martin Scorsese’s $125-million-plus The Irishman—that is a good thing. But film preservationists consider theatrical exhibition a cornerstone of their jobs for a reason. A movie isn’t preserved if it’s just sitting on a shelf or sitting unclicked in some virtual backwater. Movies are preserved by being watched, and in order to watch a movie, people have to know it exists. Sarandos told Variety that “Film festivals are to help films get discovered so they can get distribution,” but that process of discovery isn’t over once the first check changes hands. If Sarandos is so devoted to cinema—a word he uses over and over again in Variety’s brief Q&A—then Netflix shouldn’t be trying to undermine the festivals that bring films into the world, or treating them as if they’re farm teams where movies linger until they get called up to the show. Netflix has created a distribution platform of staggering power, capable of delivering movies to people who’d never get within 1,000 miles of Cannes’ Croisette, but it’s also built a model that thrives on quantity over quality, where it doesn’t matter what people are watching as long as they’re watching something. If Netflix wants to keep using film festivals to burnish their brand and elevate their content, they should be working to strengthen them, not trying to make them irrelevant.