Organisers of the Cannes Film Festival last week said they will be making good on a 2017 promise to ban Netflix films from their main competition. Netflix doesn't open films in theatres, a practice that contradicts Cannes' policy.
Could that hurt the streaming company, which wants to win the awards game even as it seeks to play outside its rules?
Last year, Netflix made a big Cannes foray. It had two competition entries, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, and also threw several splashy parties. It set up a media home-base just steps from the vaunted (and pricey) Boulevard de la Croisette.
Netflix did so even as it criticised its host for not embracing the company. "Establishment closing ranks against us," CEO Reed Hastings wrote on Facebook last year after organisers said there would be no more Netflix movies in competition at future festivals. There was an air of tension at the festival as a result, and it appears to have carried over to this year.
"The intransigence of their model is now the opposite of ours," festival director Thierry Fremaux told the Hollywood Reporter last week. A Cannes spokeswoman referred The Washington Post to a clause in festival bylaws outlining the new theatre-requiring policy.
Netflix thirsts for the prestige that Cannes or the Oscars confers on films. It paid more than $10 million each to acquire "Beast of No Nation" and "Mudbound," dark dramas designed to win prizes. This winter, Netflix spent millions on the awards campaign for "Mudbound." The movie would go on to earn several Oscar nominations, but Netflix has yet to persuade Oscar voters to hand one of its narrative films a statuette. (It has won several prizes in lower-profile documentary categories.)
Netflix engages in all this activity because it hopes to woo the kinds of tastemakers that can cement a prestige film brand. But if it's at war with an institution like Cannes, that could pose a challenge on several fronts.
The streamer has been able to snag top filmmakers thanks to budgets that are routinely higher than those offered by studio counterparts. It is producing movies from such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach and J.C. Chandor - part of a bid, under film chief Scott Stuber, to produce as many as 80 movies per year.
But money may only go so far. Continuing to attract filmmakers without the blessing of Cannes juries or Oscar voters could be tough. In an interview last week with ITV News, Steven Spielberg called Netflix films, with their lack of theatrical distribution, "TV movie[s]," the latest in a series of disses from blue-chip directors. "I don't believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theatres for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nominations," Spielberg said.
But it's also consumers Netflix has in mind with its prestige branding.
Much like HBO, Netflix relies on a certain seal-of-quality to get people to fork over money every month. Without a chance at something like Cannes' Palme d'Or, regarded as global cinema's brass ring, it could have a harder time making the case to new subscribers. This is especially true internationally, where the Palme has a lot of cachet and where Netflix hopes to substantially grow. For subscribers, Netflix's algorithm offers recommendations based on signals from other viewers of how much they liked a show or movie.
Netflix is under pressure from Amazon to define itself as the most prestigious streaming company, said a longtime film veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be viewed as critical of a potential partner. Amazon already beat Netflix to the punch with "Manchester by the Sea," which won the first major Oscar for a streamer, for original screenplay, last year. (The film went on to win a second Oscar, for best actor.) Netflix doesn't want to be known as the "mediocre" home of commercial movies like "The Cloverfield Paradox" and Adam Sandler comedies, this person said.
"Cannes remains the ultimate tone-setting prestige festival," he noted. "If you want to remain a premium service that the most affluent consumers consider a must-subscribe, you need to be able to play in the game." (Cannes, incidentally, allows Amazon movies in competition because it opens films in theatres; the service has had several.)
The trickiness of Netflix's goal - winning over the establishment while adopting an anti-establishment tack on theatres - is not lost on its executives.
"We have to work harder to be accepted," its chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, told The Post several weeks ago, before the controversy reignited. He said one way around it was via creative persuasion. "Our films just have to be that much more undeniable," he said. A Netflix spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
For its part, Cannes has long been a standard-bearer of deep industry tradition; it embraces its country's unusually long 36-month window between theatrical and secondary releases, for instance. The festival serves as de facto leader of an old guard that believes in the supremacy of the cinematic experience.
In fact, the Netflix comments come as part of a larger effort by Fremaux to roll back a digital tide. He revealed last week that he will seek to stop the social-media-driven phenomenon of red-carpet selfies and make a move that would essentially stop critics from tweeting before gala premieres as well.
In the long run, many pundits think Cannes can't win this staring contest, especially as more high-end films arrive from other theatre-agnostic streamers. But the festival isn't blinking yet, forcing Netflix to hold on to its philosophy but not a Palme d'Or.
© The Washington Post 2018