Will Smith and Pedro Almodovar jostled over it.
Silicon Valley executive Ted Sarandos defended it.
The Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu boasted about it.
And the people who run the entertainment business can’t stop debating it.
Despite its traditionalism, or perhaps because of it, this year’s Cannes Film Festival became the epicenter of the digital disruption rumbling through Hollywood.
From the screenings in the Grand Palais to the crowds along the Croisette, it was impossible to run into a boldfaced name without confronting the issue of digital progress–how much of it can, will and should be allowed into this bastion of cinematic purity. Opinions flowed like rosé, arguments flashed like paparazzi cameras, as the industry’s relationship to Silicon Valley, the fate of the old-school movie theater and the kind of screen content that deserves to be called art were discussed and debated.
In other words, an existential fight for the future of entertainment along the French Riviera.
“Cannes,” said the festival veteran and FilmNation executive Glen Basner, “has to figure out what it wants to be.”
The identity crisis began even before the festival opened when two Netflix movies—Noah Baumbach’s family dramedy “The Meyerowitz Stories” and Bong Joon-ho’s biogenetic satire “Okja”– were included in Cannes’ prestigious competition section. French theater owners protested and festival organizers hastily backtracked, saying that in the future any movies not released theatrically in France would be barred from competition. (The winner of the competition section, considered the top tier of Cannes movies, receives the coveted Palme d’Or.)
At issue, however, is far more than a few international honors or the identity of a 12-day glitzy event on the French Riviera. Cannes may be the pinnacle of cinematic prestige and hold an outsized reverence for the past, but it represents a mind set that, depending on one’s point of view, should either be valiantly upheld in the face of barbarians or eagerly torn down in the name of democracy.
At the start of the festival, Spanish filmmaker Almodovar declared to reporters that “the size [of a film] should not be smaller than the chair on which you are sitting.” The head of this year’s competition jury, he added that: “[As long as] I’m alive I’ll be fighting for the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen.”
Sitting near him, Smith, a member of that jury, took exception. “Netflix has had absolutely no effect on what [my children] go to the movie theater to watch,” he said. “It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension.”
The faceoff was a surprising moment of candor, violating an unspoken rule that jury disagreements stay private. And it was just the beginning.
Meeting with a small group of U.S. reporters at Netflix’s festival headquarters several days later, “Okja” director Bong said he didn’t mind if people couldn’t see his film in theaters. “It if looks good on the big screen it will look good on the small screen,” he said.
The pro-Netflix statement was met with a tweak by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the film’s stars. “So everyone at the premiere can sit and…watch it on their phones?” he said to the director, who was sitting near him.
The blowback didn’t stop Netflix from seeking to leave its mark on the festival with numerous events and parties. The largest of them was a glitzy bash at a villa outside downtown that evoked halcyon days of festivals past, when established U.S. and French giants regularly threw over-the-top parties.
Yet the company has also sought to position itself as an outsider. Posting on social media shortly before the festival, Netflix chief Reed Hastings proclaimed that the “establishment [is] closing ranks against us.”
Later, at the villa party, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Sarandos told the trade publication Variety that if the company was indeed barred from next year’s competition, executives would find it “less attractive” to bring its movies to Cannes. He also said he found the idea of a high-minded festival requiring a commercial presentation a “paradox.”
Many found those remarks problematic.
“You can’t say you’re starting a business to shake everything…
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