Saturday, May 20, 2017

Netflix, Cannes, and the Battle for the Future of Cinema

The Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious and exclusive cinematic event of the calendar year. Each May in the south of France, the press, the industry, and the filmmakers collide to make deals, attend glitzy red carpet events, and most importantly, watch some of the most hotly anticipated films of the year. The 2017 edition of Cannes is one of the most stacked in years, with a lineup that includes films from a variety of respected auteurs. Michael Haneke is hoping to win his third Palme D'Or with Happy End, Sofia Coppola is making her return to the big screen with The Beguiled, and The Lobster filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is hoping to solidify his position as one of the best in the game with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. New films from Todd Haynes, Ruben Ostlund, the Safdie Brothers, and more round out the incredible lineup. But at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the main story hasn't been the movies or the filmmakers or the red carpet drama. All of the attention has been focused on one distributor, a studio that is shaking up the game and permanently altering the way that we watch movies.

Of course, I'm talking about Netflix.


They killed the home video industry, and now, they're coming for the theaters as well. At least that's how the theaters see it. To many in the industry, Netflix is viewed as an existential threat to the way that business has been done since the dawn of cinema itself. Everything was fine when Netflix stuck to making original TV programs, but the studio is beginning to establish itself as a force in the film industry as well. To chronicle the whole Netflix/Cannes drama, let's start at the beginning of the story. When the lineup for this year's festival was announced, Cannes programmer Thierry Fremaux revealed that Bong Joon Ho's Okja and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories were both part of the In Competition lineup, marking those as the first titles from Netflix to receive the coveted slots. Some time later, Cannes revealed that starting in 2018, films that would not receive a theatrical distribution in France would no longer be eligible to receive a Competition slot. Essentially, this banned Netflix films from being eligible for awards at the festival.

When journalists and filmmakers made their way to Cannes earlier this week, the drama over Netflix continued to rage. Jury President Pedro Almodovar and jury member Will Smith found themselves at odds, with Almodovar walking back controversial comments that seemed to indicate that he wouldn't consider Netflix titles for the Palme D'Or. With Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos also in town (essential reading- Telegraph critic Robbie Collin's interview with Sarandos), the battle continued, overwhelming the discussion and putting many famous voices on opposite sides of the aisle. Then somehow, things got even worse. At the first screening of Okja on Friday morning, it was reported that there were a loud smattering of boos that emerged as the Netflix logo shined across the screen. Those boos continued for the first several minutes of the movie, as audience members quickly came to the realization that the masking on the film was completely incorrect. The film started over, with critics jeering even louder when the Netflix logo appeared for the second time. While Okja ultimately received a fairly warm reception, the drama over Netflix (and the potential sabotage of the screening) was all the rage.


This is a debate that will continue for the foreseeable future. Netflix continues to acquire many major projects, films from beloved directors that many audience members want to see. Hell, they already acquired Taika Waititi's Bubbles at Cannes, a stop-motion animated film about Michael Jackson's pet chimpanzee. They'll premiere the Brad Pitt vehicle War Machine next week, and in addition to Okja, 2017 will also see the release of Adam Wingard's Death Note, David Ayer's Bright, and Mute, the latest film from director Duncan Jones. They appear to be in final negotiations to make Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, and they bought several titles at this year's Sundance Film Festival, including Grand Jury prize winner I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Jeremy Saulnier, and Dee Rees are flocking to the studio. They're changing the game. And most importantly, they refuse to cater to anyone.

Both Sarandos and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings aren't in the business of bowing to the current studio model. It's not to say that they don't believe in the theatrical distribution window so much as they don't believe that they have to be a part of it. Hastings especially seems to advocate for a confrontational relationship between Netflix and the theater industry, saying that they haven't innovated in the past several decades beyond popcorn that tastes slightly better. Hastings clearly isn't trying to make things better, and I have no doubt that the relationship between theaters and the streaming giant will continue to be testy for the next few years. So who's right here? Is Netflix destroying cinema as we know it, as the theater industry holds on for dear life? Or are people like Hastings and Sarandos actually saving movies as we know it?


Although it surprises me to admit it, I'm on Netflix's side. They aren't the saviors of cinema yet, but look at the films that they're producing, beyond the weird Adam Sandler garbage. Okja is a big-budget movie (upwards of $50 million) from a Korean genius who experienced a ridiculous battle with a studio chief over his last masterpiece, the 2014 sci-fi film Snowpiercer. With Netflix, Bong claims that he was given total freedom to make exactly the movie he wanted- and if critics are to be believed, his strange, uneven family flick is uniquely brilliant. Netflix is taking big risks on creative, talented people who have been shunned from the studio system. Would an R-rated original film about a cop and an orc in a futuristic Los Angeles that costs $100 million be made by a major studio today? No, so David Ayer took Bright to Netflix and now it's one of their biggest movies of the year.

If the studios and the theaters really want to know why Netflix is a threat, they need to do nothing more than look at themselves. For one, the theaters have managed to destroy the practice of regular moviegoing. My local theater recently underwent a major overhaul, changing to reclining chairs and reserved seating. The seats are nice and the theater is beautiful, but to put it bluntly, it's a pain in the ass to go to the movies there now. You have to buy the best seats well in advance and you'll likely be stuck off to the side or in the front two rows if you don't buy early, which kills the spontaneity of going to the movies. It makes a trip to the cinema feel like an event- great for the people who go four times a year, terrible for those who make multiple trips to the theater every week. And not to mention the fact that the clientele hasn't gotten any better. Movies today are dominated by loud talkers, people who spend their whole time on their phone, and just general disruptions who find a way to ruin things for everyone else. Chains like Alamo Drafthouse have managed to cut down on that, but it's a pervasive problem that threatens the industry as a whole.


Next, let's turn to the studios and the product that they're putting out. I'll be honest, this is a pretty solid summer for movies, one that could be a record-breaker at the box office. But there's a sense that audiences will eventually tire of the sequels and reboots, creating a market where we'll see more flops like last weekend's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. And while the blockbusters are impressive, there's a growing sense that the smaller movies are being pushed out. While there have been quite a few breakout films in 2017, there have also been long stretches of mediocrity at the theater, where even someone like myself hasn't felt compelled to leave the house to see a movie. Studios like A24 and Amazon have found a way to survive and put out consistent quality product, but with a relentless slate of would-be blockbusters, this summer looks to reinforce the idea that smaller films are a dying breed.

So let's recap:

-Movie theaters are making it more difficult to attend films on a regular basis.
-Audience members suck.
-Original movies are struggling to find the money to be produced.
-The only films worth seeing in a theater are the big blockbusters.

I know the theaters think they have the advantage here, but they really don't. Netflix is the connective tissue of pop culture right now- the release of shows like Stranger Things and House of Cards is arguably just as much of an event as the theatrical premiere of a new blockbuster movie. I saw twice as many articles written last week about the Netflix premiere of Master of None than I did about the debut of King Arthur. Netflix is funding bold originality from filmmakers with vision, which is something that most of the major studios simply aren't doing. Netflix doesn't meddle or re-cut or force script changes- they hire filmmakers with a vision and they allow them to execute.


For all of this evidence towards the ascendance of Netflix, theaters have shown surprising resilience over the last few months with the success of a few films that aren't blockbusters in the traditional sense of the word. Damien Chazelle's La La Land was a bona fide breakout over the course of the holiday season, grossing $151 million in the US off a $30 million budget. Jordan Peele's Get Out became a genuine cultural phenomenon in February, and M. Night Shyamalan's Split proved to be a buzzy title as well. These movies are generating huge amounts of excitement, and they're getting people to show up to the theater.

But if you look at the top of the box office charts, you'll quickly realize that these are the box office outliers, not the norm. The charts are dominated by franchises like Star Wars, Fast and Furious, and the X-Men. Remakes of films like Beauty and the Beast. Marvel installments, Pixar flicks, the latest kids movie with talking animals- these are the films that get made these days. And that's not to say that these films can't be good- Logan is a masterpiece, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is a superior sequel from a true mastermind, and I even found a good deal to enjoy with Beauty and the Beast. But these are safe bets, movies that come with a built-in audience that the studios know will show up on opening weekend. There isn't much room for an original idea to become a blockbuster.

Did I cherish being able to see Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room on the big screen? Absolutely. Am I heartbroken that Hold the Dark, Saulnier's next film, will be heading directly to Netflix? Nope. As long as the brilliant filmmaker gets the chance to make the film that he wants to make, I'm happy with that. For so long, directors have had to choose between either working within the confines of the studio system or financing their film independently. Netflix is liberating these artists, giving them the money that they need and the platform that they deserve. Indiewire critic David Ehrlich makes a lot of good points about how Netflix promotes their content, and how they still have much to learn when it comes to getting their subscribers to watch these great movies. But they're still young, and I have no doubt that as the years go by, they'll only get better and better.


This is all coming from someone who cherishes the theatrical experience. I love watching trailers on the big screen. I love seeing a movie at my local IMAX theater, being overwhelmed by the size of the screen and the quality of the sound. I can't wait to watch Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and be utterly immersed by the experience. But if you told me that Baby Driver, the new film from Edgar Wright, one of my favorite filmmakers on the planet, was going to be released on Netflix on June 28 instead of receiving a theatrical release, would I be heartbroken?

No, I really don't think I would.

And coming from someone who loves movies and loves going to the theater, I think that's really saying something. It's a brave new world for the studios, the theaters, and the filmmakers. We're going to see many rapid changes over the next few years, and this debate at Cannes is only the beginning. As more filmmakers choose creative freedom over theatrical exhibition, this fight will only grow more contentious. But at this point, one thing is abundantly clear to me- Netflix has the upper hand.


Sources: Telegraph, The Verge, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire
Images courtesy of Netflix, Sony, and Lionsgate
'King Arthur' Image Credit: IMDB/WB

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