Cannes: the crown of the French Riviera, upholder of the selfie ban, and guardian of cinema. Unsurprisingly, this prestigious film festival is also a particularly conservative institution – as evidenced in the ongoing row with streaming giant Netflix. Both organisations have since thrown around romanticised terms like “the art of cinema” – but is this instead a case of an outdated (and notoriously elitist) institution worried about its own survival?
Last week, Cannes declared that any Netflix films that are brought to this year’s festival would only be screened ‘out of competition’. Plainly, this meant that the films would not be eligible for any awards at the festival, with the ‘in competition’ category a major platform for upcoming releases. The decision was made largely in response to last year’s controversy, when Netflix had two films screening in competition. Due to a French law that prohibits home streaming less than 36 months after theatrical release, cinema owners were disgruntled with Netflix robbing them of potential screenings (and profits).
More broadly, however, this points to a wider problem that Netflix is facing of late – that is, being denied the distinction of making ‘proper films’. From Helen Mirren to Steven Spielberg, countless purists of cinema have recently come out to denounce Netflix’s films as little more than TV movies – with Spielberg even claiming they shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars. This inflated backlash is certainly a product of industry paranoia, with the cosmic success of Netflix – particularly among younger viewers – being equated with ‘the death of cinema’. Longstanding institutions like Cannes, meanwhile, are posited as stalwarts of the good old days.
This nostalgia doesn’t appear to be for what we are watching, but rather how it is we’re watching them. Indeed, one of the films Netflix had hoped to bring to Cannes this year was Orson Welles’ unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, which they were not willing to screen theatrically in France. Cannes, amusingly, have meanwhile scheduled a special screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (presented in 70mm by Christopher Nolan, no less). Clearly, we have two institutions fighting over exhibition, rather than content.
Is a film no longer a film when it is viewed on a laptop screen? Despite the availability of DVD and Blu-ray for almost 20 years now (and VHS before that), it seems these formats were never accused of distilling cinema in the way that Netflix and home streaming now are. In viewing terms, Netflix isn’t doing anything new – we have long been watching films from the comforts of our living rooms on vastly smaller screens.
Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, summed this up when he said that Cannes had chosen to celebrate ‘distribution, rather than the art of cinema’. And while it’s admittedly quite absurd for Netflix to be positioned as bastions of cinema, Sarandos does have a point. Cannes are bounding this ‘art of cinema’ to the confines of a movie theatre – to that celestial, out-of-body sensation we get when the lights are dimmed.
Now, it pains me to admit this as a cinephile, but it’s time to confess that the ‘cinematic experience’ is often not everything it’s chalked up to be. Unless you solely go to the cinema to see The Greatest Films of All Time™, the only sensation you’re going to be leaving with is the stench of nachos on your coat and an empty wallet. Terrible social etiquette aside, this ever-increasing cost of going out to the cinema has undoubtedly contributed to the plummeting audience numbers (don’t let those high box-office figures fool you, it’s the inflation). Recent conversions to digital projection and the apparently ‘in demand’ 3D has seen cinema chains force audiences into a corner, leaving a major gap in the market. Cue Netflix.
With audiences priced out of a single £15 trip to the cinema and given the option of a £6 subscription for unlimited films every month, it’s no surprise that things are going the way they are. And it’s important for institutions like Cannes to recognise this, instead of attempting to trivialise a booming enterprise. Netflix alone isn’t responsible for any crises in cinema; it’s the gross commercialisation of cinemas that have caused the distillation in the ‘theatrical experience’.
If nothing else, this feud has provoked some much-needed discourse about the pressing dangers of Netflix. Though they are just filling a gap already present in the industry, the move away from theatrical releases is nevertheless alarming. Yet, Netflix itself isn’t killing the ‘art of cinema’ – it’ll just be a much slower death if Cannes seeks to ignore them entirely.