Cannes vs Netflix Is the Latest Battle in an Ongoing War

Even an inexperienced movie director would have said the symbolism was too heavy-handed. When the screening of a Netflix-backed movie started on Thursday night at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the aspect ratio was wrong, so large parts of the film couldn’t be seen.

The problem was quickly corrected, and the Festival said it was just a simple projection error. But that small mistake took on much greater significance because it involved Netflix.

Even before the glitch in the projection of the movie on Thursday became obvious, reports say there was a chorus of boos from the audience when the Netflix logo appeared on screen. That’s because many players in the traditional film industry see the streaming giant as an unwelcome interloper in their business, if not an outright threat.

The movie, a new film called Ojka from director Bong Joon-ho, sparked controversy even before Thursday night’s showing, when the head of the Cannes jury—Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodovar—said that he felt Netflix films shouldn’t be eligible for the festival’s Palme d’Or award unless they are screened in a traditional theater first.

Almodovar’s comments echoed the festival’s announcement earlier this month that starting next year, it won’t screen any movies that haven’t had a traditional French theatrical release first.

Netflix has said it is willing to consider a truce with the industry, in which its movies would have limited theatrical screenings, but the law in France requires that films be available in theaters for at least three years before they can be streamed online.

On his Facebook page, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings referred to the Cannes festival’s decision as “the establishment closing ranks against us.”


Actor Will Smith, who is also on the jury for the festival, jumped in to defend Netflix after the Spanish director’s remarks, noting that his teenaged and twenty-something children watch a lot of Netflix content but also go to see movies regularly in theaters.

Smith’s defense of the streaming company isn’t surprising, considering he has a new movie coming out soon called Bright that was backed by Netflix. But the brouhaha also reinforced the divide between the forces that control the traditional movie industry and the kind of generational change in content consumption that Netflix has tapped into.

Almodovar and others may believe that a movie hasn’t really been experienced until it is shown on a large screen in a traditional theater, but millions of Netflix fans and those who stream movies through alternative providers such as Amazon Prime Video would beg to differ.

Not only is Netflix moving in on the traditional industry’s turf by financing and releasing films like Bright and Okja, but the “binge watching” phenomenon that the company pioneered—in which people watch multiple episodes of TV-style shows back-to-back—could also be seen as a competitor for the attention that used to go to movies.

It’s not just the attention of audiences or artistic considerations that traditional movie companies are concerned about. Netflix has also been spending large sums of money (as has Amazon) to buy the rights to movies at events like the Sundance Film Festival, and that has very real implications for the industry.

As it has in the TV end of the entertainment business, Netflix has been making attractive offers that don’t suffer from the same kinds of constraints that many typical Hollywood deals do, such as arcane formulas for profit-sharing that often result in lower returns. And the more appealing Netflix becomes, the more threatened the industry feels.

Ojka director Bong said that Netflix gave him “great support. The budget of the film was considerable, and a budget of this size is rare for filmmakers. I loved working with Netflix, they gave me total freedom. It was a wonderful experience.”

The war between Hollywood and Netflix got its start in 2015, when the company released Beasts of No Nation, and said that it would screen the movie in traditional theaters at the same time as it was streamed to Netflix subscribers online.

This was a shot across the bow of the movie industry’s much-loved “release window” rules, which require that films must be available exclusively in theaters for 90 days before they can be streamed online or delivered digitally. When Netflix refused to budge, most of the major U.S. theater chains refused to show the movie.

Netflix CEO Hastings hasn’t helped matters by accusing Hollywood of being backward technologically and allergic to innovation. “How did distribution innovate in the movie business in the last 30 years? Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it,” he said during a Q&A with reporters earlier this month.

Amazon, meanwhile, which is a much smaller player than Netflix, has acceded to the industry’s demands and releases its movies in theaters first before streaming them online. As a result, it has gotten very little of the negative attention that its larger competitor gets.

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