Two weeks after a ruling rendered its films ineligible to compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or and other awards at the Cannes Film Festival, Netflix has announced that it will withdraw its films from the event entirely.
Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos made the announcement during an interview with Variety that was published Wednesday, adding another layer to an ongoing struggle between steadfast proponents of more traditional film exhibition and streaming services.
“We want our films to be on fair ground with every other filmmaker,” Sarandos said in response to Cannes' ruling that Netflix films cannot compete at the festival. “There’s a risk in us going in this way and having our films and filmmakers treated disrespectfully at the festival. They’ve set the tone. I don’t think it would be good for us to be there.”
Last month, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux announced that Netflix films would not be allowed to compete at the festival in 2018 despite allowing the Netflix-distributed films Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories to compete in 2017. Festival bylaws state that a film must be distributed theatrically in France may not be "exhibited on the internet" in order to compete at Cannes, but Fremaux said that he was hoping by allowing Netflix films in last year he could convince the platform to show their films in French theaters. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix tried to land "temporary permits" for brief theatrical runs in French theaters at the time, but France has very strict laws pertaining to theatrical distribution and eventual home platform releases. In France, home platform releases are not allowed until 36 months after theatrical release, which meant that Netflix would have to wait three years to show those films to French streaming customers.
That complication, coupled with a public outcry from French theater owners, among others, led to Cannes' decision to exclude Netflix flims from competition this year. Netflix, sticking to its own model of streaming distribution, isn't budging. Some Netflix executives will be present at the festival, on the lookout for films the company might purchase for distribution, but no Netflix films will screen even outside of competition.
Sarandos, who pointed out that Netflix regularly attends other festivals around the world for both acquisition and exhibition, blamed the Cannes decision on valuing tradition over art.
"Do we love the red carpet? I love our filmmakers being on those red carpets," Sarandos said, directly responding to Fremaux's remarks last month. "Of course. It’s a very glamorous, very fun event for filmmakers. That is beside the point. That is true of every festival. Last year we were jointly celebrating the art of cinema at Cannes. The divergence is this decision to define art by the business model. In that way, yes, we have diverged."
The debate over where streaming models fit in the world of cinema on both the business and the artistic sides is not new, and it will not end with this battle between the most famous streaming company in the world and the most famous film festival in the world. Perhaps Cannes will evolve and relax its bylaws in the coming years, or perhaps the festival's leaders will simply eventually let Netflix in again in spite of those bylaws. Perhaps Netflix will just keep earning accolades elsewhere regardless of Cannes' decision. Wherever the two parties in this particular dispute go next, this is part of a larger conversation about art and commerce, what constitutes a film experience in an age when you can watch a feature-length movie on your phone, and much more.
The 71st annual Cannes Film Festival begins May 8.