“The festival has chosen to celebrate distribution rather than the art of cinema. We are 100% about the art of cinema.” – Netflix’s Ted Sarandos
Well, it’s over now. Maybe it’s been over for awhile. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, gave an exclusive interview to Variety, and well, basically, Netflix knows when they are not welcome. And they’ll forgo subjecting their filmmakers to audiences primed to be antagonistic in the wake of this rhetorical war.
Netflix will not show movies at Cannes this year.
Let’s step back a moment and cover some background. About a year ago, the Festival de Cannes decided to adapt their competition rules to require films to commit to theatrical release in France. That posed a bit of a challenge for Netflix. In France, they have windowing rules which preclude films released theatrically from going to home media or streaming services for three years. That isn’t a typo. Three years!
Netflix releases some of their films theatrically in America to compete for the Academy Awards — that’s how Dee Rees’s Mudbound earned four Oscar nominations — but this doesn’t preclude them from doing same-day worldwide releases on their original content. That isn’t to say it’s controversy-free in America. This rule-sharping practice earned a rebuke from no less than Steven Spielberg last month.
Regardless, due to complaints about Netflix titles (namely Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories) being in contention for last year’s Palme d’Or and as a result of Netflix not being able to conform to the theatrical window confinements in France, now all streaming services have been banned from the competition slate as of last month. At the same time, however, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux made a public invitation for Netflix to screen their films out of competition during the festival.
Fremaux told Variety, “Cannes aspires to welcome all sources of contemporary creativity, and today Amazon and Netflix — and tomorrow perhaps Apple — represent something important. Especially because they work with brilliant filmmakers, some of whom are among Cannes’ returning auteurs. These new partners of the film sector have a very strong economic footprint. We will eventually come up with a good agreement.”
I guess not so much.
Fremaux also said in the same interview that “in order for a film to become part of history, it must go through theaters, box office, the critics, the passion of cinephiles, awards campaigns, books, directories, filmographies. The collective discussion in cafes, in theaters, on the radio. All this is part of a tradition on which the history of film is based.”
And, you know. That’s hard to take seriously when distribution rules in that country mandate that those cafe discussions continue for 36 months.
Traditions are tough. We all have our peccadilloes. The problem is that some traditions we hold dear to our hearts might edge beyond enshrined little sins. For example, in the same interview, Fremaux announced that critics would no longer be given access to screenings in advance of world premieres because French critics are notorious for shredding movies no one in the public has ever seen.
The audiences there are also famous for booing films they dislike. Really, Google it and find your favorite listicle of Films Cannes Booed That You Should Watch. And there are some good ones! I’m not taking all this personally because they booed The Fountain.
Contrast that with Cannes’ incredibly public rule, for which Fremaux advocated, banning selfies this year. Because selfies are indecorous. Yeesh.
Jeremy Saulnier, director of the Netflix film Blue Ruin and a former Cannes competitor, told IndieWire, “Who the hell wants to be booed at the first presentational credit of your film, especially when it’s disparaging the entity that made the film possible in the first place?”
And, that brings us back around to Sarandos’s most recent interview with Variety. He noted that “there’s a risk in us going in this way and having our films and filmmakers treated disrespectfully at the festival. They’ve set the tone. I don’t think it would be good for us to be there.”
This conversation around SVOD (streaming video on demand) versus theaters is deeply interesting. And, unquestionably, SVOD represents a seismic event for your local theater. There are all sorts of interesting takes on how Netflix’s recommendation algorithm is shaping the way we think about films. There’s work still to be done on thinking about how MoviePass is going to have the same effect on how we consume movies at the theater.
Let’s not confuse a deeply fascinating business discussion about how we consume movies with something as crucial as who is allowed to make the movies we watch. These two things are simply not imbued with the same cultural relevance.
The only quote about Cannes I want to jump off this page is one from Jessica Chastain, said at the conclusion of her jury service in Cannes last year. Read every word.
“This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days. And I love movies. And the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women. From the female characters that I saw represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest. There are some exceptions, I will say. For the most part, I was surprised with the representation of female characters on the screen in these films. I do hope that when we include more female storytellers that we will have more of the women I recognize from my day-to-day life. Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, and don’t just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view.”
Fremaux’s response? Last month, he told Variety that Chastain’s comments helped him to understand “the importance of the ‘female gaze’ during the selection process.” He said, “The Official Selection includes many films directed by women. In 2017, 23% of the films presented were directed by women, which is above average, since women-directed films represent less than 10% of movies being made.”
It isn’t just a numbers problem. It’s a representation problem. Still, the numbers are broken.
How many women are on this earth, proportional to men? Slightly more than half. So, one-fifth representation of women filmmakers is hardly a victory in the grander sense of who should be contributing to art.
Fremaux says they’ve equalized representation on their selection process, but I haven’t seen those statistics released. What were the male/female breakouts for selectors over the last 20 years?
I can tell you what I found looking through the composition of the three main juries (Feature Film, Un Certain Regard, and Camera d’Or) for the last 19 years on Wikipedia. The Feature Films are the main category. Un Certain Regard, for original and different works. And the Camera d’Or is for best first feature.
Cannes, if you’re listening and you want to release your statistics, call me, maybe?
From 1997 to 2017, 44% of the Feature Film jurors were women. 45% of the Un Certain Regard jurors were women. And, only 33% of Camera d’Or jurors were women. Altogether? Only 41% of jurors on those three key bodies were women. Of those three bodies, only 35% had women presidents. And, in the last 19 years, there’ve only been five women presidents of the Feature Film jury.
But, let’s talk competitors.
From 1999 to 2017, only 10% of Feature Film nominees were directed by women (or co-directed by a woman) — 356 men- to 38 women-helmed films. In that time span, no women won the Palm d’Or. No women won the Un Certain Regard. However, in 2011, they issued separate awards to two different films helmed by men.
Fremaux has an optimism that women are rising through the ranks of filmmaking to be ready to compete at the level of Cannes. Well, since 1978, 14 women-helmed films have won the Camera d’Or. Remember, this is the award for the best first feature. Where are those women’s films in the ensuing years?
Oh, and in 1993 when Jane Campion won, Cannes awarded two Palm d’Ors. This happens from time to time.
Yes, there are plenty of women on the rise through the ranks, but this attitude ignores the fact that there are still plenty of women-directed films that are already at that level. And, it is flat wrong to argue that’s the only reason for the limited number of female winners when other indicators of sexism are evident.
What stands out most about Chastain’s argument is that the problem is not isolated to the limited number of women being selected. The other films they select, the overwhelming majority, actively featured misogynistic caricatures of women.
There is a systemic problem with sexism in the filmmaking industry. This is not a secret. It’s mildly shocking to hear a curator of cinematic art, meant to represent all of us, argue that a woman he listened to for 20 seconds last year helped him to realize they had a small problem with numbers.
Gatekeeping over medium debates preclude a much more essential conversation about access to the creation of art. Women-directed films making up only 10% of films is not a bullet point on a list of how an organization is marginally better. It’s a tragedy. If that statistic comes up in your conversation and you don’t immediately shift the discussion to how you can help improve that statistic, you are doing filmmaking and appreciation of film wrong.
After Jessica Chastain spoke, Toni Erdmann writer/director Maren Ade added, “We all want the film business to reflect modern society. The way it is now, those numbers, we’re still not there. I agree we’re missing a lot of stories they might tell.”
What could Cannes do? Here’s an idea off the cuff: make a policy that every selection, whether helmed by a man or woman, will be reviewed by a committee of women to ensure misogynistic films are not selected. Pettier rules exist.
Plenty of studios are cruising for awards. In this conversation, Netflix has been willing to go against their very fiber and screen in theaters to meet those requirements. Don’t you imagine major studios would want to set up their own review committees to ensure the films they pursue go through a similar culling?
Here’s another idea: only consider the first features of women for the Camera d’Or for the next several years. That award does not have its own field of competitors. It’s selected from all the categories. And, it’s been dominated by men. So, simply make the choice to elevate women in cinema.
Netflix is fine to break up with Cannes. Maybe it’s okay for the film community to stop catering to Cannes’ elitism until the festival takes its representation problems as seriously as it does red carpet selfies and streaming wars. That goes for all the festivals. Let’s celebrate everyone.