Netflix and Cannes

Was the decision to ban Netflix from competing for awards at the Cannes Film Festival justified?

As I sat down to start binge-watching my third Netflix show of the vacation, it came as a surprise to find that the streaming service had been banned from competing at the Cannes Film Festival. While Netflix can still be selected to screen its films at Cannes, it will no longer be eligible for any of the awards on offer, including the famous Palme d’Or, because it does not release its films in French cinemas.

This announcement has been in the offing for almost a year. Two Netflix films, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, were selected for competition at Cannes last year, but the Netflix logo was met with boos on both occasions. The festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, claimed that he only allowed Netflix to compete in an attempt to persuade it to show its films in cinemas. In large part, the conflict is down to the culture of the French film industry. In France, the cinematic experience is seen as necessarily communal and movies are regarded as a form of public art. However, French law stipulates that films cannot be distributed on streaming sites until three years after their theatrical release, which is clearly contrary to Netflix’s business model. As such, Netflix is understandably reluctant to  show its films in French cinemas.

Cannes is not alone in its disapproval. Well-respected figures in Hollywood feel much the same – both Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg have spoken out against Netflix. They acknowledge the artistic merit of Netflix’s films but argue that they are really a form of TV and should be awarded as such. This was the case with Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, which had to be made for the HBO network because no Hollywood studio would finance the film. It subsequently went on to win multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards, but could not be nominated for the Oscars.

The common thread linking the various criticisms levelled at Netflix is the belief that the company’s aversion to showing their films in cinemas – it rarely gives them anything more than a limited release in North America so that they qualify for awards – is contrary to the spirit of big screen projects. Apparently, the fact that Netflix makes its productions available online devalues the theatrical format (whatever that is) and means that they are regarded as TV movies rather than proper films.

But the fact that Netflix’s films are rarely shown in cinemas is not a reason to disqualify them from competing for the most prestigious awards in the film industry. They should not be prevented from receiving the recognition they deserve simply because they are not made for the big screen. The stereotypes that come with the phrase ‘TV movie’ no longer apply, when much of what Netflix offers has the same talent in front of and behind the camera as the best Hollywood Oscar-bait. Yes, it is hard to argue that films like Dunkirk are not elevated when enjoyed on a grand scale, and the cinema will always be there for them. But, for most, the cinema has moved into the home, which enables us to enjoy a far broader range of premium films than would otherwise be the case.

At best, the distinctions made by the organisers of the Cannes Film Festival seem like an arbitrary way of cementing the glamour and prestige that the term motion picture is supposed to create. Traditionalists love to see movies as some kind of golden art form, but are reluctant to accept that this can still be the case on a laptop. In fact, Netflix is now one of the few places where independent film-makers can obtain funding for mid-budget films that larger production companies won’t take because they are unlikely to be profitable but which are of a much higher standard than the average box-office success.

There is no real justification for excluding films produced by Netflix on the grounds of quality. It seems, then, that the decision to exclude Netflix from competing for awards at Cannes is based solely on prejudice and an unduly narrow definition of what counts as cinema. Don’t forget that Cannes is the same film festival that has also banned selfies from the red carpet this year, which supposedly tarnish the quality of the festival, and in the past have enforced a strict high heels policy for women. Saying that the organizers are behind the times is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

Film festivals like Cannes are fighting a losing battle. They cannot shut out streaming services if they want to remain relevant. It simply isn’t possible to ignore the quality of the films that Netflix has already produced and the promise of those that are in the pipeline – it is currently producing a film directed by Martin Scorsese and other big name directors will surely follow in his wake. If Cannes continues to exclude films produced by Netflix and other streaming services, then it will soon lose its reputation for showcasing the finest films on offer. It may remain the glitzy affair that it always has been, but it will no longer be able to claim that it rewards the best in cinema.