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Less than a week before the Cannes Film Festival was scheduled to announce its 2018 slate, reports circulated that Netflix pulled several films under consideration in response to the festival’s insistence that competition films must receive a theatrical release in France. “We’re still talking,” Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux wrote in a brief email to IndieWire. “They are still welcome.”
Nevertheless, multiple reports and sources close to the matter suggest that Netflix moved to pull its titles from the festival after Fremaux gave an interview to Le Film Français in late March, reiterating a 2017 rule that would ban Netflix titles from competition. “That’s their economic model, and I respect it,” he said in the interview, referring to Netflix’s commitment to a streaming-only approach. “But we are all about cinema and we wish to have films that play in competition get released in theaters.”
Last year, Cannes played Netflix titles “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” in competition, an unpopular move among French exhibitors; a law overseen by the nation’s culture minister requires 36 months between a film’s French theatrical release and its streaming debut. Fremaux worked to mollify them when the festival declared, mid-festival last year, that all future competition films must have a theatrical release in France.
By that standard, Netflix would have to wait three years before premiering films on its own platform if it wanted to have future films in competition. While the rule would not stop Netflix titles from playing in other high-profile sections with red carpet premieres, Netflix has other reasons to remain wary of going to Cannes: The streaming company endured a harsh debut at the Cannes 2017, when its logo was sometimes booed by audiences and the company’s disinterest in theatrical distribution overshadowed conversations about the movies themselves.
While Netflix could launch its titles at many other festivals, and has yet to comment on the situation with Cannes, the latest news impacts five highly anticipated films: Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark,” Paul Greengrass’ “Norway,” and two Orson Welles–related offerings: “The Other Side of the Wind,” his long-lost, recently completed film, and Morgan Neville’s documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.”
Some of those titles were never in contention for competition, including the Welles film — the filmmaker’s last, uncompleted work — which was a natural fit for the Cannes Classics section. “Even though we are not in competition, we are collateral damage if they decide not to go,” said producer Frank Marshall, who’s overseeing the Welles restoration.
Some filmmakers with Netflix titles in contention declined to comment, as did the distributor, but Saulnier confirmed that “Hold the Dark” would not play the festival this year. “It’s a shame, I think it could’ve caused a stir,” he said via email about his film, an adaptation of William Giraldi’s novel starring Alexander Skarsgard, Riley Keough and Jeffrey Wright. “But it will ultimately be better for the film to be showcased at festivals later this year, closer to the release (exact date TBD). Also, who the hell wants to be booed at the first presentational credit of your film, especially when it’s disparaging the entity that made the film possible in the first place? That’s where I’m a fierce defender of Netflix.”
At the time, Fremaux faced severe pressure from French exhibitors, who protested the festival when it gave Netflix two competition slots. “The exhibitors are right to react,” he told IndieWire in an interview last fall. “Everyone has to react for the support of their own jobs.”
Saulnier’s career received a significant boost when his last two features — “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” — premiered at Directors’ Fortnight. He called France’s 36-month window “a dated mandate” and added that “it can’t last long.” However, he positioned himself as a neutral party. “I respect Cannes ‘holding the line’, protecting what they perceive as traditional cinema and the business models supporting it,” he said. “I respect Netflix for carving new paths that bypass traditional methods of distribution to directly connect with a humungous audience. But both entities are evolving, and I think eventually they’ll work out their differences.”
Fremaux’s need to satisfy the French film industry may not mean much to Netflix, but it speaks to broader questions about how a country that has treasured the art of cinema for generations can adapt to new models that marginalize the role of theatrical distribution.
“It is a new world,” he told IndieWire last fall, adding that the festival was “fighting for theaters and to have the audiences back in theaters.” He singled out “Okja,” Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s sci-fi crowdpleaser, which was warmly received at Cannes in spite of the backlash to its distributor. “A lot of people here who are big Bong Joon Ho fans still haven’t seen it, because it’s Netflix,” he said. “So it’s not finished, this story.”
For now, filmmakers benefiting from Netflix’s deep pockets must contend with the possibility that a revered Cannes competition slot just won’t happen. Saulnier said his views on the matter have evolved in tandem with his relationship to the theatrical prospects for his films overall. “I’ve financed my own films, so I get the commitment it takes and the financial risk involved to double down on theatrical and put your investment on the line,” he said. “You never know.”
He acknowledged that the $3.2 million domestic box office for “Green Room,” released by A24, fell short of expectations after ecstatic Cannes reactions. “It had overly generous reviews and tested far higher with audiences than several similar releases that did $10 million to $40 million domestically,” he said. “Maybe we should’ve gone wide? Maybe we should’ve spent more money? That spring everything tanked, so who knows? No point in dwelling.” He remained optimistic about the future. “I’d love one day to experience a box-office smash, but until then the only theatrical experience I truly desire is a festival premiere,” he said, “just so I can share my work with fans and feed off that collective energy.”
Saulnier, who was well positioned to ascend to the competition ranks after his previous experiences on the Croisette, contemplated the possibility of a future compromise. “To keep attracting top-tier filmmakers, Netflix might need to consider a plan to integrate more traditional theatrical strategies for high-profile films,” he said. “Okay, okay, that’s me playing diplomat. But I genuinely have faith that both organizations want to connect festival audiences with great movies, and they should do just that.”
Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.