Old media vs new. Cinematic experiences in a theater or streaming in the comfort of your living room with Netflix. Pedro Almodóvar or Will Smith. These are the dichotomies that have dominated the 2017 Cannes Film Festival — the most prestigious film festival in the world.
Cannes has been the preeminent film festival since its origins in 1945 — where “Rome, Open City” won the top film award — the Palme d’Or — and set in stone both the Italian neorealist movement and the international acclaim that was to follow for the festival located in Southern France.
In the 70 festivals since, Palme d’Or-winning filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, Abbas Kiarostami, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, Martin Scorsese, Michelangelo Antonioni, the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino have all launched their illustrious careers (or cemented them) at the festival. These are all filmmakers who have pushed the limits of cinema, or showed new ways for stories to be told in those communal, dark theaters.
Then came streaming services that threatened to take down the cultural power that cinema has possessed from the early 20th century up until now. Netflix, in particular, poses a problem for filmmakers and film exhibitors, and in some cases, hardcore cinephiles. Big screen theater experiences for spectators — with the chance of discussion afterward, thanks to the large theater-going group format — is slowly dissipating from normal viewing habits. Instead, people now watch the newest Sundance sensation on their laptops and then can follow it up with whatever new critically trashed Adam Sandler film Netflix produced.
And thus there was a critical backlash when Cannes — a safety space for the old guard — selected two Netflix films enter into their Main Competition slate: Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” (also co-starring Adam Sandler, emphasizing Netflix’s undying love for him). Either could win the Palme d’Or this year — which quickly became a problem for critics who believed that Cannes can’t screen Netflix films that will barely be seen on the big screen (if at all). In fact, for 2018 onward, Cannes has made it an official rule that films will have to screen in France theatrically in order to premiere at the festival.
Netflix currently has no plans to release “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” theatrically — the streaming giant rarely ever distributes its properties beyond its online platform — and critics have decried that the two films may not even be “films” at all. This all prompts the question: should a film that won’t be seen in a theater by the majority of people who watch it be allowed to compete with films that will be seen on the big screen?
While the debate between the streaming giants of today versus the studios, exhibitors, festival directors and cinephilic spectators will always exist, Netflix’s ability to offer such distinctive visions should be commended rather than chastised.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” had such a rough time in America with edits and distribution from The Weinstein Company, that he has been adamant in his appreciation for the way Netflix never interfered with his artistic vision. Rather, they gave the filmmaker $60 million — an amount Joon-ho would never receive in Hollywood — to make the film he wanted. Netflix thankfully refused to edit down or tamper with Joon-ho’s “Okja.”
This difference in models between Netflix and The Weinstein Company (and film studios at large) actually points to one of the major advantages of a filmmaker turning their work over to a streaming giant: the monetary risk a film studio feels when they release a nontraditional — at least, from a commercial standpoint — film is not always worth that said risk.
Countering this, Netflix can fund a $60 million film and not worry exclusively about the financial profit from it, as Netflix is more interested in expanding and cultivating its subscription numbers — as are most subscription and streaming services. Just having two films at Cannes (and “Beasts of No Nation” at the Venice Film Festival two years ago) is enough to build the cultural prestige of Netflix.
When “Okja” was shown at the critics screening, boos from the typically vocal Cannes crowd were heard over the Netflix logo appearing before the film. Yet like all great cinema, once the reels began rolling, the audience was immersed in Joon-ho’s creative expression — culminating in a standing ovation after the film finished at its premiere later that day. The Guardian even gave “Okja” a perfect five-star rating.
The following day, Baumbach’s Netflix production was also met with boos initially, followed by ecstatic reviews once the film was screened. So much praise in fact, that people are seemingly convinced again that when Adam Sandler wants to act, he can really act.
So the problem is not Netflix. Instead, it is the whole dimension of cinematic production and distribution, in which art-house films and middle budgeted films like an “Okja” or “The Meyerowitz Stories” are not being produced or released by any companies other than Netflix or Amazon Studios. In fact, Amazon Studios bought the rights to Oscar nominee Todd Haynes Cannes-premiering “Wonderstruck,” another excellently reviewed film in competition.
Interestingly, some of the best, most interesting works to premiere at Cannes this year aren’t even films to begin with. “Twin Peaks: The Return” from David Lynch and Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl” are two auteur-led moving image stories, neither of which will premiere on the big screen despite being from some of the most acclaimed directors of all time.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, two-time Oscar winner for Best Director, has a virtual reality project called “Carne y Arena” premiering at the festival. None of these three non-film projects were met with the same scrutiny as the Netflix films, despite all being signal bearers of the issues inherent in a medium that refuses to push its boundaries.
While streaming platforms do hurt distributors and exhibitors’ financial capabilities, Netflix and Amazon, and TV channels such as Showtime (“Twin Peaks”) and Sundance/BBC (“Top of the Lake”) are actually willing to allow an auteurial vision to shine, where Hollywood studios would rather bask in mindless, expensive sequels, prequels and boring properties that everyone thinks are great until they realize they are soulless rip-offs of greater works from a forgotten cinematic history.
Cannes, of all places, should be aware of this bleak potential future for cinema. Which is why, instead of bashing Cannes’ choice of having two Netflix films, we should be happy that Cannes was willing to screen these two films, and we should encourage them to not go down a path of restricting what they can show at the festival. By avoiding that temptation, Cannes would set the precedent that regardless of what screen we watch a moving-image story on, getting a quality project seen and discussed is the most important element.
So when the head of the jury Pedro Almodóvar gathers with the his group of voters to decide the Palme d’Or and other awards, I think it will not only be in Cannes’ best interest, but the future of cinema, to judge the Netflix films on their merit as art rather than the way the majority of the people will see them. If the utmost importance of visual media is for audiences to be engaged in the stories being told (formally and narratively), then both old models and the new should be encouraged.
Initially, in history, film was said to be the medium to kill theater or literature, and thus was critiqued as a lesser medium. Yet both coexisted and continue to excite people of all ages — with film becoming a legitimized art form with the rise of the Cahiers du Cinema critics. Then TV came around and people were afraid it would destroy film (and society) and it was de-legitimized as a “vast wasteland.” Now, though, TV is just as prosperous as film, if not more so, with filmmakers like Lynch calling it the new art house. Looking to the future, we have games and virtual reality systems to contend with film, print, TV and other forms of media.
None have ended the lifespan of others, and in most cases, these differing media have all become intertwined. Some of the best novelists have turned to film to restart their careers and push the medium. In today’s complex TV age, auteurist filmmakers are going to TV as the best medium to tell their story. VR has attracted Alejandro González Iñárritu, and video games have talents such as Guillermo Del Toro and Steven Spielberg acting in and developing interesting, interactive stories for gamers to plunge into.
What this all means is that the old guard, and old media in particular, is rarely ever hurt by the advent of a new medium. Rather, they all help imbue each other with intertextuality. This isn’t to claim that a media utopia is near, but that regardless of competing media forms, there are typically more positives than people tend to admit initially. And it just so happens that a company such as Netflix (or Amazon, or Hulu) has found a way to be on the cutting edge of multiple platforms. Whether Cannes realizes it or not — its wide range of quality films, VR projects and TV landmarks this year is showcasing to the world, once again, that the festival is a birthplace of legitimate moving-image art forms.
I never saw “Rome, Open City,” “Taxi Driver,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Wild at Heart” or “Pulp Fiction” on the big screen, and I’m sure many readers likely didn’t catch these films on the big-screen at these films’ initial releases. But I and many others were still able to feel the cinematic magic each represented. Hopefully, “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Story,” and “Carne y Arena,” “Twin Peaks: The Return” and “Top of the Lake,” too, are judged from what they are — great works of moving-image art — rather than by who is releasing them, or where.
Contact Levi Hill at [email protected].