Heretics and Heroes at The Theater: Thoughts on The Ban in Cannes

Henri Testlin

If Theater is the Church, then the movie is The Word.

I’ve got a few words to say about the primacy of the theatrical experience. This is a thought that’s been scratching at my brain for more than awhile, but a recent kerfuffle at the Festival de Cannes helped it catch some traction.

The background of the conversation? Netflix and the Festival de Cannes had a bit of a tiff over how movies should be released if they are to be considered for competition. Netflix has been taking a very aggressive approach in eschewing theatrical release for films they acquire for distribution. They recently snagged Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore after its champion run at Sundance and sent it straight to its streaming platform. They are taking the same approach for the movies they produce. The Festival de Cannes response to this? Next year, they’ll require films to be screened in France to qualify to enter the competition.

Pedro Almodovar, who led the competition jury this year, shared his thoughts in the following statement: “I personally cannot conceive of not only the Palme d’Or but any other prize, is given to a film and then being unable to see this film on a large screen… The size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair you’re sitting in. It should not be part of your everyday setting. You must be small and humble in front of the image that’s here.”

Shockingly few movies receive wide theatrical releases. Very few independent films are lucky enough to even make the cut for limited release in major cities. Some films only get a handful of screenings for their theatrical run. The overwhelming majority of films made each year do not get a theatrical release. So, unless you live in Los Angeles or New York, you aren’t likely to have access to even this small selection of titles. How far shall I drive to be properly humbled by the best of films?

There seems to be an idea that the Culture of Cinema is under attack by Netflix. Or Amazon. It’s hard to sustain the argument that a market disrupting company like Netflix is going to have more of an impact on our ability to see the films we love on the big screen than the film industry itself. For example, Riley Stearns’ Faults played SXSW in 2014 but was ultimately released straight to VOD. It is one of my favorite movies and a genre film I regularly recommend. With that distribution path, how do I watch that in the theater? Who fails these movies? Netflix?

This fight seems in some sense to be based on the notion that there was a Golden Age of theatrical revelation for all filmmaking proselytizers. It all feels a bit of a By Royal Decree, We See Value In This. The Cinema was king at a time when we really couldn’t watch movies at home. And, even then, there were fewer films being made. Well, the king is dead, long live the king: cinema.

All this, for a defense of the cinema, right? It’s a bit of a baffling conversation to have in public. As an argument, it entirely misses the point of cinematic art. If the theater is the Church, and I think it is, then movies are the Word. While I’m not especially religious, I happen to know that the Church isn’t what matters when it comes to sharing the Word. A church is a place where we gather with like-minded individuals and reflect on the things that spiritually move us. What does the plushest of pews or the size of the pulpit have to do with that? What does the container have to do with the message?

Movies are meant to be seen, considered, and discussed. We all agree on this, I think. They are meant to provoke thought. They are meant to expose you to thoughts and ideas you may not have previously seen or considered. It’s why representation is so important. Movies are our stories. And stories have always been meant to pass messages, to allow us to consider who we are and where we are going. The venue is not even remotely a consideration in this fundamental truth of the value of art.

Before you come at me sideways, understand I’m Top Brass at the Alamo Drafthouse. I am fortunate in this way. But, Church is expensive. I’m no Communist. I just find it annoying when people casually affirm the most expensive way is the essential way to experience something. And what does “essential” mean, anyway?

Many of my favorite first time viewing experiences, or just great film experiences period, have been out on my deck at night watching a film on my tablet. It’s where I first saw, in a brutal double feature, These Final Hours and Faults. That experience rocked me. Experiencing film outside of the theater is something to which we can all relate. For example, watching Christmas movies, of any stripe, while wrapping presents. Or, sharing a favorite movie with someone you love for the first time. How about a viewing party at your house where you program an evening’s entertainment for friends and family? The sharing of the Word on the homefront or elsewhere is a huge part of introducing people to the value of the deep cut.

You know when I started to break up with organized religion? The more focused it got on how to experience a message, the less interested I became. The more time it spent telling me how, exactly, to adhere to broad strokes of philosophical ideals, the less it appealed to me. Sharing the Word is not about telling people how to watch something. It’s about opening doors for them to explore on their own. If that’s the point of a film, then the point of a festival is to aggregate these things and shine a light on what they consider the best for whatever they value in cinema. Well, that’s why this fight with Netflix doesn’t make sense as an argument from a public podium. The Festival de Cannes is punishing next year’s Bong Joon-ho, who’s Netflix funded Okja competed this year, for taking the funding and distribution deal they could get to realize their vision. Unless, perhaps, the point of the Festival de Cannes is to celebrate the most profitable vehicles for French distributors?

If your message can’t stand on a street corner and succeed on its passion alone, well. What do you want me to say? I’ve usually already made up my mind on what I want to catch in a theater. Millions of dollars have typically been spent in each of those cases to help me make that choice. Every recommendation from friends in the parking lot after a screening, or practically every film conversation I’ve ever had, has led to a list of films I’ve inevitably consumed outside of a theater. I’ve been going to the movies every weekend of my life, but cinema has never been about the theater. Never.

Will Netflix be the savior of cinema? Nah. It doesn’t need saving. Will their cash-drunk, all or nothing approach to production and distribution impact the film industry? Yeah. Necessarily. What’s going to happen to the future of the cinema? I’m not sure. I am certain Netflix isn’t going to be the thing that buries the theater. It isn’t going to suck artistic freedom or exploration from a film. And it isn’t going to make the theater a forgotten experience of a more refined era. Of course, there’s value in seeing something on the big screen. Ever try to watch Avatar at home? Exactly. Some movies really do demand immersion. The theater is going to be just fine.

Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.