Cannes film festival goes to war with Netflix

Netflix and skill: Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton on the set of Okja.

This year, the festival’s line-up features two films from Netflix. Next year, it will refuse to show any more “on-demand” movies. In the digital age, should we still be going to cinemas?

Cannes is no stranger to controversy. In its 71-year history, the world’s greatest film event has witnessed arguments over high heels, dead pigeons and Nazis.

But the big debate at this year’s festival, which begins tomorrow, strikes at the very heart of the movie industry. Two films in the competition, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, were entered by Netflix, and will be largely bypassing cinemas.

Their selection has infuriated many in the industry, who argue that cinemas are an essential part of movie watching.

In response, Cannes has issued a new rule: in future years, films will have to be screened in French theatres to qualify. In other words, Netflix will have to start doing things the old-fashioned way, or miss out.

This has angered others, who accuse the festival of being out of touch with the latest trends and technologies.

The dispute reflects a deep unease in the film world. The rise of on-demand movies and television series threatens to eat away at ticket sales. After a disastrous summer at the US box office last year, many predicted the “death of the cinema”.

What’s more, Netflix and Amazon are now financing and distributing their own films, some of which are scooping major awards (such as the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea”). This gives them the power to decide where and how some of the year’s biggest releases will be seen.

Unsurprisingly, cinemas are defensive.

So are some filmmakers: famous directors like Sofia Coppola and Christopher Nolan are calling on viewers to see their films where they are “meant to be seen” — that is, the cinema. At a recent conference, after showing a clip from the new Blade Runner sequel on a cutting-edge cinema screen, one film executive declared: “Netflix my ass.”

But not everyone agrees. On-demand is hugely popular; some see it as an exciting way to reach new audiences, and to finance interesting projects that might not otherwise get made.

“In the end, physical theatres and digital streaming platforms will co-exist,” predicts Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director of Okja.

Who is right?

Screen savers

Films are made for the big screen, say some. Watching them at home is a shame, like listening to an album through your smartphone speaker. Netflix and Amazon should at least give their own films a proper theatrical release before putting them online. Otherwise, they will ruin the magic of cinema.

Don’t be so elitist, reply others. Many cannot afford to go to the cinema anymore. And those not living in big cities barely get to see small independent films. By bringing films to a wider audience, these websites are keeping cinema alive. Theatres will not die out, but their reign is over — and that’s a good thing.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite film of all time?
  2. Would you rather watch it at home or at the cinema? Why?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with the idea for a film. Find a title, write a synopsis (story summary) and sketch some of the characters/scenes.
  2. In the same groups, decide whether your film should be released online or in cinemas. Present your film concept to the class, and explain the reasons for your decision.

Some People Say...

“Cinema tickets are a rip-off.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Netflix has 99m subscribers. Amazon Video is estimated to have around 66m. That represents a lot of potential cinemagoers. And yet there’s little hard evidence that on-demand services are harming cinemas. Box office revenue is actually growing in the UK and the USA, and one analysis concluded that big new Netflix releases barely impact on ticket sales the following weekend.
What do we not know?
Whether this will change in the future. Some point out that cinemas have survived big changes in the past — such as the invention of TV — and will do so again. Others argue that as home cinema systems become more sophisticated, and on-demand services draw more subscribers, distributors will not see much point in pouring time and money into theatrical releases. What do you think?

Word Watch

Cannes
The festival is held annually in the south of France. Many of the year’s biggest releases are premiered there.
Dead pigeons
In 2001, British actors promoting a film at the festival staged a publicity stunt that involved attacking each other with the stuffed birds. The authorities were not impressed.
Okja
This sci-fi adventure tells the story of a young girl who tries to stop a big corporation from kidnapping her animal friend.
The Meyerowitz Stories
The film follows an estranged New York family as they reunite for an event celebrating the father’s achievements.
Largely bypassing
In fact, the two films will get a theatrical release in some countries — but not France.
Disastrous summer
Although ticket sales were roughly the same as in 2015, last year’s blockbusters had far bigger budgets — and therefore lost a lot more money. According to The LA Times, experts are predicting even worse figures in 2017.
Distributing
The role of a distribution company is to acquire the rights to recently completed films, decide where and how they will be shown, and market them to the public.

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