By Josh Tarpley
The 2017 Cannes Film Festival has come and gone (you can see the big winners from the fest here). Normally the conversation coming out of Cannes is that of prestigious films and what may or may not have Oscar chances. While that still happened, by far the largest conversation this year was that of “Cannes vs Netflix” (Or “Cannes v Netflix: Dawn of Okja” if a major studio decided on the title). Bigger than one festival or streaming service, many online are taking sides as to what the very definition of cinema is. On one side, we have the traditionalists. The traditional argument is that a film should be released in theaters first, staying in the multiplexes for as long as it is making money. Then once sales have slowed to a halt, a home video (Blu Ray/DVD) is set, after that rentals are made available (Redbox/temporary streaming rental), and then (and only then) is it made available for the various streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu being the three main names).
The past two decades have seen a major shake up in the traditionalist’s worldview. It used to be that a film wouldn’t be released on home video for 7-8 months after it was in theaters. I remember it being common place that Summer movies wouldn’t be available until Christmas of that year. Nowadays it appears the maximum studios can wait is 90 days (with digital rentals being made available even before that point). The traditional view sees a strict distinction between watching movies on the big screen as a communal experience and watching movies at home (or on your laptop/tablet/phone/smartwatch/whatever), and they want to keep the two camps as separate as possible.
On the other side, we have the “Netflix argument,” for sake of argument we’ll call these guys the “progressive argument.” For the progressive, the theater experience is plagued with rude theatergoers, poor projection/sound issues, and soaring prices that make going to the theater not worth it at all. With the advent of 4k televisions and top notch sound systems for your living room, what’s the point of paying $10-$15 to see a movie once when you could pay $20 to own a movie and view it in a better way?
While that may be the customer’s viewpoint, this worldview has been made possible thanks to streaming services pushing the boundaries for how cinema should be viewed. To be clear, Netflix and Amazon have taken two different paths and should be distinguished. Yes, Amazon has original films it has produced (or purchased after the fact), but they still give their films a traditional release before it hits Amazon Prime. Contrast that with Netflix, who bought the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” at this year’s festival, only to see it unceremoniously released on Netflix on February 24. Though “streaming services” may be pitted against the traditionalist view, what we are really talking about is Netflix’s desire to change the movie marketplace.
Check out The Verge’s write up on a recent interview Netflix CEO Reed Hastings gave here, they summarize the Netflix worldview like this:
“During an onstage interview with Recode’s Peter Kafka, Hastings said he thinks it’s “inevitable that the current window system breaks down,” referring to theatrical release systems, the time period before movies come to DVD and eventually become available as home rentals…But if it that happens, that doesn’t mean that people will stop going to the theater entirely — at least, according to Hastings. He believes many will still pay for a communal experience. “Just like you go out to dinner even though you know how to cook,” he told Kafka.”
This brings us back to Cannes. France has a law that a film cannot hit a streaming service until 36 months after its theatrical run (3 YEARS!). Netflix had two films in competition at this year’s fest, “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” and waiting three years to have them hit the streaming service just isn’t an option for them. So for the first time Cannes had films played at their festival that will never be released in theaters in France.
That was just the first level of controversy (causing boos to happen when the Netflix logo appeared before the showing of “Okja”), the second level (and larger conversation) is to whether or not Netflix’s model of distribution is good or bad for cinema as a whole. On one hand, Netflix is funding movies that bigger studios aren’t, I mean, have you seen the trailer for “Okja?” Filmmakers like Bon Joon-ho and Ava Duvernay (“13th”) are given a blank check and the freedom to make their project. On the other hand, as David Ehrlich argues, is that Netflix’s wild west approach to releasing film and television every weekend means that these quality films don’t get seen and that is the bigger crime.
Call me a traditionalist, but I think Netflix needs to pump the breaks here and we as cinema lovers need to take a stand for the theatrical experience. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the awfulness that is available at your local theater. The poor sound, the dim projection, the people who are only at the movie theater because the bowling alley was full that night, I get it. That being said, I wouldn’t give up the theatrical experience for anything, and it is scary to think that its days are limited.
In today’s crazy market place, let’s take a look at two companies that are doing it right. First, let’s revisit Amazon. “Manchester By The Sea” made its debut at Sundance 2016 and Amazon broke the bank purchasing it, putting up an unprecedented $10 million for the drama. In my opinion, they did the film justice by giving it a traditional release. The film ran the festival gauntlet, building up it’s Awards buzz, it was then given a standard limited-then-wide theatrical release. Amazon even waited the customary 90 days before making it available to stream on Amazon Prime. This is the best of both worlds in which a streaming service can offer stellar content to their customers while also making sure movies are given the respect they deserve in the theatrical space.
Now this is not to say that the responsibility relies solely on the streaming services to accommodate the traditional model. Theater chains need to step up their game in a big way to make sure they are a viable option in the 21st century. That brings us to our second example of a company doing it right: Alamo Drafthouse. Started in Austin, TX with franchises expanding nationwide, Alamo is leading the pack when it comes to maintaining the respect of the theater experience. They have 30 minutes of pre-show content designed to entertain before the movie starts. They make sure their sound and video projection is of utmost quality. Most famously, they have a strict no texting/talking policy once the movie has begun, and they are proud of their reputation of being harsh.
Amazon shows us how a streaming service can still make sure movies get a standard release and Alamo shows us how going to the movies is still a worthwhile venture. Now, will I be watching “Okja” when it hits Netflix in a couple of weeks? You bet your ass I will! At the same time, we need to support our local theater chains and make sure that film is seen in the best viewing possible. The “Netflix vs Cannes” debate has been a conversation that has been bubbling for years now, who knew it would take a super-pig movie to bring it to the forefront. As cinema lovers it is important for us to grapple with these questions and work with studios/distributors/theaters/steaming services to make sure this art form we love progresses forward in the best possible way.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film/Television on Twitter at @JoshTarpley7