Who are the real losers in Netflix’s war with Cannes?

The streaming giant has pulled its films out of competition at this year’s Cannes festival, leaving both sides feeling vindicated

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If you told a time-travelling film critic from, say, 2005 that today’s industry headlines are being dominated by a fierce corporate feud between the Cannes film festival and home entertainment upstart Netflix, they’d be pretty well baffled. Times have changed fast, though faster for Netflix, founded in 1997, than for Cannes – now in its 71st year – which has happily clung on to a classically prestigious model of cinematic art and exhibition, where discerning audiences gather in large, dark halls to watch, venerate and occasionally denigrate the visions of leading international auteurs.

It’s a model vigilantly guarded not so much by Cannes’s own directors as by the cinema exhibitors of France, who have thus far safeguarded themselves from the economic threat of streaming culture with rigid protectionist laws – notably one that imposes a three-year gap between a film’s theatrical opening and its surfacing on video on demand (VOD) services. Extreme by most countries’ measures, the regulations are particularly unsuited to the business model of Netflix, which prefers to simultaneously release its original films – including two Cannes competition titles last year, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories – online and in a token number of cinemas, if any at all.

Last year, Netflix’s refusal to release the Bong and Baumbach films in French cinemas started a squabble with the Cannes board that has escalated into a full-blown war, following the festival’s rule change requiring all competing titles to be available for French theatrical distribution. With neither side agreeing to a compromise on their respective release requirements, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos announced last week – the day before the festival’s lineup announcement – that it was pulling its entire slate from consideration, including expected selections from Alfonso Cuarón and Paul Greengrass, plus Orson Welles’s long-in-limbo The Other Side of the Wind.

Netflix’s acclaimed 2017 film Okja.
Netflix’s acclaimed 2017 film Okja. Photograph: AP

A bolshy power play by the streaming service, it’s a blow for the festival and film-makers alike, though Cannes’s unflappable artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, has publicly shrugged it off. Announcing a diverse, surprise-heavy lineup last week, he simply made a passive-aggressive statement of appreciation of Netflix’s rival Amazon Studios, distributor of Paweł Pawlikowski’s forthcoming competition title Cold War, whose more traditional cinema-then-streaming approach has raised far fewer hackles in France and Hollywood alike.

In this brittle standoff, fault lies on both sides. The French anti-streaming measures may be draconian, but resistance to Netflix’s anti-cinema model is quite understandable. I’ve written often in this column about the mixed rewards of a VOD release for new or festival-fresh films. Quite aside from diminished screen size and visual impact, what films gain in universal accessibility, they lose in promotion, public awareness and even prestige, slotted as they are into a vast, fast-moving content menu between Adam Sandler originals and new episodes of Queer Eye.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Come Sunday.
‘Superb’: Chiwetel Ejiofor in Come Sunday. Photograph: Tina Rowden/AP

It’s not the future most film-makers dream of as they craft their magnum opus, yet there are some low-key festival discoveries that benefit from the Netflix treatment. Recently premiered on the service, Joshua Marston’s finely drawn ecclesiastical drama Come Sunday didn’t make too much noise at Sundance in January, and it’s unlikely that it would have found much of an audience in cinemas. The true story of an American preacher (a superb Chiwetel Ejiofor) experiencing a crisis of faith, its rewards are the reserved, thoughtful, formally modest ones that don’t traditionally translate into even an arthouse sensation.

Found in the Netflix haystack, however, it plays as an honest, provocative palate-cleanser, one that hits all the harder for the lack of advance hype. To stumble upon it accidentally at home is akin to the thrill of an unexpected discovery at a film festival. Just don’t expect Cannes to see things that way.

New to DVD & streaming this week

The Awful Truth
(Sony, U)
A natty Criterion Collection treatment for one of the slinkiest of all golden age Hollywood screwballs. Amid all the champagne bubbles, this 80-year-old divorce comedy retains a sharp, ironic tang.

(eOne, 15)
The cartoonishly farcical half of George Clooney’s black comedy of murder and malice in 1950s suburbia ticks along nicely enough; the half-hearted shoehorning of a civil rights drama into it, however, reeks of the wrong kind of bad taste.

The Touch
(BFI, 15)
Ingmar Bergman’s first English-language film, above, was maligned on release, but this extras-laden restoration makes a handsome case for reappraisal: tonally complex and uneven, it accumulates a beseeching emotional force.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
(Dogwoof, 12)
The 1940s screen siren turned technology trailblazer gets the fully spotlit profile she has long deserved in Alexandra Dean’s conventionally assembled but duly absorbing doc.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story – trailer
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Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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