But Netflix may well get Cannes to cave. New films from prominent artists like Cuarón will be hard for other festivals to resist, and by closing itself off to the streaming company, Cannes risks other, more flexible rivals (like Venice, Berlin, Toronto, and Telluride) becoming the place to premiere major works. The 2018 official selection announced last Thursday by Cannes is exciting, with new movies from big international directors on the docket. But the lineup did lack some of the glitzier entries that had been expected from filmmakers like Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Luca Guadagnino, and Claire Denis (though a few more titles may be added to the list later).
Fremaux, for his part, has called the standoff with Netflix a “sad situation” that he hopes will be resolved. “I believe in miracles,” he told Variety after the company pulled its films. “We’re having constructive discussions with Netflix and the door is not shut.” But the ideological dispute will be hard to resolve. Fremaux, like many others, sees the theatrical experience as the bedrock of cinema, while Netflix is openly dismissive of that idea.
“A lot of directors will come in and they will talk about the movies that they saw, and these are the movies that influenced them and made them want to be a filmmaker, and in almost every case they watched them at home on a VHS tape,” Sarandos told Deadline in a 2016 interview. “There’s a romantic notion about the film being on a big screen … We have to get rid of the romantic part. I don’t really think that they’re mutually exclusive. I think over time that these films will get booked into theaters at the same time they’re on Netflix.” (Upcoming Netflix rivals, like Disney’s planned online streaming service, likely won’t follow that model.)
Relatively little would be lost if Netflix were to bend its rules and give films a limited run in theaters before putting them online (the company’s objection to the French law is more understandable). The company would still be offering consumers a choice between a theatrical and home-viewing experience. People who don’t live near a variety of cinemas might have to wait slightly longer to see an art film, but they’d still get the kind of access with a Netflix subscription that a movie fan could only have dreamed of 10 years earlier.
Netflix’s biggest objection seems to be against any kind of constrained market. Sarandos’s underlying argument is that the notion of a “theatrical window,” which limits movies to a particular mode of distribution, doesn’t exist in another artistic industry, nor should it. Cineastes might view the theater as hallowed ground, but many people would happily consume films in the comfort of their own home—and Netflix argues that a free-market approach will bear that out. What’s at stake is the idea of what a “film” really is—if it matters where or when you see it—and whether the movie industry will broaden its thinking as Netflix wants, or start to put stricter definitions in place.