Netflix vs. Cannes: A Generational Fight

Quite a lot of virtual ink has been spilled on the IS6621 blog about Netflix, and for good reason – the company has fundamentally changed how we consume movies and television. But an interesting dynamic of the Netflix equation has recently come to the forefront, one that pits the old guard of cinema up against the new age: are Netflix original films worthy of the same treatment as traditional theatrical releases? It’s a question that has reached some of the titans of the industry, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese, and it’s apparent that not all of these influencers are on Netflix’s side. Are we experiencing a “cold war” between proponents of digital vs. theatrical distribution? Are Netflix originals glorified TV movies, as critics would accuse, or are they the real deal?

The event that set off this recent debate was the recent announcement that Netflix original films would not be competition eligible at France’s Cannes Film Festival, one of the most important and prestigious film festivals in the world. The past year, two Netflix originals, the whimsical “Okja” and family drama “Meyerowitz Stories”, were entered into the competition to compete for the vaunted “Palme d’Or” prize, a decision that received scrutiny from much of the film press.

cannes-film-festival-1300x474At the center of the conflict is a French law that states that films must have a 36 month long gap between their theatrical release and availability on streaming services. For Netflix, which either releases films simultaneously in streaming and a limited theatrical release, or abandons a theatrical release entirely in favor of immediate streaming, this was bad news. But they stuck to their guns, and the debate that followed has resulted in a Cannes Film Festival without a Netflix presence. It seems strange that one of the most influential producers in the industry would be flat-out excluded from Cannes, but it speaks to just how passionate both sides are about this debate.

Genuine cinema legends have voiced strong opinions about Netflix and their distribution methods. Steven Spielberg, probably the most famous American director alive, said that Netflix originals that are not given a wide release should not be up for Oscar consideration, and should be technically considered as “TV movies”; Emmys are fine, he says, but no Oscars. They simply do not meet his criteria for a movie. Christopher Nolan, director of Dunkirk, the Batman trilogy, and other hits recently compared Netflix unfavorably with Amazon Studios, a competitor that has produced such award winners as “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick”. Amazon similarly streams its original content but not before a short run in theaters, something Nolan sees as a necessary requirement for a film to meets its true cinematic potential. Nolan later apologized for comments that he called “undiplomatic in the way [he] expressed it”, but his original assertion that Netflix tactics were a “mindless policy” that hurt the audience experience has still got to sting the digital giant.

Maybe the most interesting perspective comes from Martin Scorsese, one of the longest operating titans of American film. The theater experience remains absolutely crucial for Scorsese: he states that “the ideal would be to see cinema in its proper context”, meaning theaters as opposed to streaming or small-screen home viewing. And yet he shows an open mind, recently reaching a deal with Netflix to produce and distribute his mob film “The Irishman”, set to release next year. It is set to be Netflix’s most expensive film yet, with a budget running over $125 million and a cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, a bonafide mob movie Mount Rushmore. There are rumors that the film will have a limited theatrical release, but this is relatively rare for a Netflix original. To see such a stalwart side with Netflix, even when Scorsese’s public posturing suggests a preference for the traditional theater experience, reveals the kind of power that Netflix commands. It is possible that Netflix is the only studio out there that was willing to fund the project, or at the least fund without exerting much creative control. Netflix grants new opportunities for filmmakers, even if some vitriol is tossed its way for its distribution methods. The fact that this opportunity comes from a streaming giant, not a traditional studio, is as good a sign of the changing times as any, and it sure makes Cannes look left in the past.


For a different pro-Netflix perspective, take Director Jeremy Saulnier, the mind behind the low budget but critically successful action-suspense films “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room”. Netflix is producing his new film “Hold the Dark”, and Saulnier is appreciative for the creative freedom that a Netflix partnership grants him, or as he colorfully puts it, “telling narrative stories with other peoples’ money”. Netflix has been conscious about maintaining its reputation as a hub for creativity and free thinking, free of the typical Hollywood constraints. Doesn’t this kind of independent, hands-off approach speak to Netflix’s genuine commitment to the audience experience? Stories like this make it hard to understand the Cannes conundrum.

But to be fair to Netflix’s detractors, not all of their original programming recently has screamed quality. “The Cloverfield Paradox” was a viral marketing hit at the Super Bowl, announced during the game and released immediately after, but the movie behind the media craze was a disaster, currently sitting in the teens on Rotten Tomatoes. An interview with the original distributor basically states that they sold it when they realized it was crap, and Netflix was there to take it off their hands at a reasonable price. Other new releases with similarly cool receptions include the sci-fi noir “Mute” (15%) and the Will Smith fantasy action film “Bright” (26%). It doesn’t bode well for the industry reputation of the streaming approach if Netflix prizes quantity over quality, and it has appeared that way recently. There are successes mixed in, like the Oscar nominated “Mudbound”, but Netflix should probably be more selective if it wants to have it both ways: pleasing audiences with a wide selection, while at the same time preserving its reputation as a creator of quality content for filmmakers big and small. In a couple decades, its entirely possible that theatrical releases are the last thing on anybody’s mind, but Netflix has to tread carefully and skillfully into this future.

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  1. jennypenafiel11 · ·

    Very interesting post! I never even thought about the possibility of Netflix Original Films wanting to be considered for awards at Film Festivals. I think as a movie goer I think I naturally see Netflix films and traditional films as different and wouldn’t think about them competing for the same awards. However, your post made me reconsider why that is. After all, directors can still express their creativity and art through a film made for the small screens of our laptops. I would still like to hear more about why there is even a French law prohibiting Netflix Original Films from being entered into Cannes. I wonder what kind of added value they see in the 36 month period between a theatrical release and availability. I also wonder if the film festivals take into consideration the amount of people that go out to the theaters to see the film. I just think about how much more expensive and inconvenient it can be to have to go see a movie in theaters so most of the time it has to be something you really want to see and you plan for. Meanwhile, a Netflix Original Film can be randomly watched in your free team. I wonder if film festival judges see this as a sense of value that would make cause Netflix to not be on the same level. Whatever it may be, I am sure this won’t last forever and the future will led to Netflix inclusive film festivals.

  2. mariaknoerr · ·

    The Cannes Film Festival’s rejection of Netflix original content is yet another round battles between “Hollywood” and the streaming giant. While they cite reasons such as cinematic value and gaps between theater runs and widespread streaming, I personally think this all comes down to money. Directors are against Netflix content competing with theirs for major awards because they want their own to be held in a more prestigious light. Of course the majority of Netflix original content is not Oscar-worthy, but that doesn’t mean that none of could be considered. The film industry would take a major hit if they could not rake in box office revenues from movie theater sales for every movie release. If films shift toward streaming-only releases on services that charge only a monthly subscription fee, their profits will disappear. It is interesting that Martin Scorcese supports the Hollywood argument for theater releases yet is directing a major movie for Netflix which gives him complete creative control. Will more directors begin to follow his lead to put pressure on the film industry to allow more creative control since they now have a competitive opportunity to do so on Netflix?

  3. Nice post. I can’t say I disagree with the filmmakers. There’s a qualitatively different experience of a big vs. small screen film (which is why I still see the Marvel movies in the theater). I think so much more visual nuance is required on the big screen, that gets lost on the small one. Look no further than Avatar, which in 3D IMAX was a near-religious experience, while on the small screen is a terrible, terrible movie. Gravity is another one.

  4. kylepdonley · ·

    This was a very interesting post, filled with juicy Hollywood drama. I tend to side with the Spielbergs on this one that a movie needs to have a theatrical release. That being said, the line is a thin one. Many movies go straight to DVD but are still considered movies due to length and overall composition. Prof Kane brings up a good point in visual nuance when it comes to scale, which makes sense, but there also seems to be a sense of grandeur or pomp to the big screen that I think is playing into this. The film industry is known for having their nose in the air to heighten what they do and that could be a big part of this to protect fragile egos and reputations as massive companies start to take a piece of Hollywood’s pie.

  5. Jobabes121 · ·

    Amazing post brother! As @jennypenafiel11 mentioned, it’s hard to compare the theatre-based films and stream-based films. I’m sure the stream-based films created by Netflix have superb content and actors, but there must be other aesthetic, artistic criteria that make the traditional films a lot more “qualified” to be considered those award-winning films. There are several advertisements, announcements, talks with reporters, and preparations prior to opening a movie on a theatre, when the stream-based films do not require as much. The experience is different indeed, but just the amount of effort put into opening a movie at a theatre is quite significant as well.

    In addition, our perception of movies that are “streamable” are rather outdated and have less “value” perceived by the media simply because they do not require a significant cost to go watch the movie at the theatre. Maybe this is the reason why France has the particular law that requires streaming to occur after 36 months. Because film is in the realm of art, psychology and people’s perception of it matters a lot. As consumers’ perception changes, the next generation’s directors may have a different point of view. Yet, it seems like their current perception will remain for a while just because they want to preserve the unique experience that theatre-based films can provide.

  6. JohnWalshFilms · ·

    The most interesting part of this blurb, in my opinion, comes when you reference, “Saulnier is appreciative for the creative freedom that a Netflix partnership grants him, or as he colorfully puts it, “telling narrative stories with other peoples’ money”. Netflix has been conscious about maintaining its reputation as a hub for creativity and free thinking, free of the typical Hollywood constraints.”

    I would love to know the opinion of George Lucas – obviously on the most successful filmmakers of all time – because he valued and sought to defend this concept of creative freedom more than anyone else – even establishing LucasFilm at great personal risk to avoid Studiio “interference” with his movies. Although I think he would be a proponent of the theater experience, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on an alternative to the Studio for filmmakers, and what that means for the future of cinema.

  7. DingnanZhou · ·

    Great post! I think Netflix is a pioneer on making these “television” movie. Facing opposing voices and hurdles are not surprising for me. They actually did a pretty good job. I think Netflix is ambitious but has still a long way to go. If they want to take a share in this movie business, audience experience should be valued. I am intrigued to see if Netflix will come up with more aggressive moves!

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