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Streaming Giants Netflix and Amazon Return to Cannes Primed to Disrupt the Market

CannesWrap magazine: Much ado about streaming as 70-year-old fest locks horns with digital disrupters

A version of this story first appeared in the Cannes issue of TheWrap Magazine.

Cannes bowed to the winds of change with typically French flair on April 13, when general delegate Thierry Frémaux explained why the storied and tradition-bound festival had admitted so many films from the decidedly modern streaming services Netflix and Amazon Studios.

“I won’t play the innocent,” he told a crowded room of journalist in Paris. “There are two new operators.”

Indeed, Netflix and Amazon Studios attend the 70th year of the festival in positions of real strength: The deep-pocketed former gets a prestige bump to complement its considerable global subscriber base, while the latter is back in numbers after its historic appearance last year.

In that same room in Paris, the festival’s opening press conference, festival leadership seemed to be heralding inevitable change — which quickly led to some highly publicized blowback when it came to one of those new operators. (More on that shortly.)

“Amazon and Netflix are new for filmmakers, producers and for the festivals,” Frémaux said at the April press conference announcing the Cannes lineup. “The festival is a laboratory.” And as usual for a film festival these days, the two streaming giants are major players in that laboratory.

While it wasn’t able to get an invite last year, Netflix has muscled onto the Croisette this year with two significant films. The first is Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja,” starring Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal. The “Snowpiercer” director is beloved by talent, including his returning villain Swinton, and this emotional action thriller looks like his most commercially appealing work to date.

The other film is “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” from writer-director Noah Baumbach in what is his first film at Cannes. He unites a considerable cast of funny people in Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Candice Bergen and “Homeland” star Elizabeth Marvel. Both titles are in contention for the Palme d’Or, a first for the company that won its first Oscar in February for the documentary short “The White Helmets.”

Amazon Studios has fared better than Netflix in streaming’s brief history of disrupting Cannes. In 2016, Jeff Bezos’ fledgling division opened the festival with the Woody Allen acquisition “Café Society,” and sent four other films into competition. This year, Amazon Studios head Roy Price is shipping over Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” which reunites the director with Julianne Moore in a tale about two deaf children living in different time periods in New York; and Lynne Ramsay’s grim drama “You Were Never Really Here,” in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a war vet investigating a sex trafficking ring.

So everyone will have a nice strut down the Croisette and then happily party on their yachts, right? Not if you’re a group of angry French movie theater owners, incredulous that an upstart streaming service would get a prestigious booking at Cannes but have no obligation to release the picture on movie screens.

“Netflix has been avoiding French regulation and fiscal obligations,” said a group representing theaters, the French National Cinema Federation, ahead of the festival. “These rules allow for the financing of our strong film industry and ecosystem which in turn allows for many French and foreign movies selected at Cannes to get made.”

While the festival held firm to its inclusion of the streaming titles, they delivered a shock a week before festival goers would arrive in the glamorous coastal town by announcing a forthcoming rule that all titles screening in competition would need a formal theatrical release in France.

“The establishment closing ranks against us,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings vented on his Facebook page.

These particular companies have been disrupters (and not in the positive, edgy context) at festivals before, specifically on respective acquisition sprees.  Netflix and Amazon will be traveling to Cannes with more than movies lining their pockets — don’t forget these companies were two of the biggest buyers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with Amazon spending a fest-high $12 million for “The Big Sick” a year after it had bagged “Manchester by the Sea” for $10 million, and Netflix landing nine films, the most of any studio in Park City. (The haul included “The Incredible Jessica James,” “To the Bone,” “Berlin Syndrome” and “Casting JonBenet.”)

In an exclusive sit-down with TheWrap prior to the FNCF controversy, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos addressed complaints from the theatrical establishment. “We’re all in the consumer-satisfaction business,” he said. “If you really believe that people would abandon movie theaters if day-and-date releasing was going on, that doesn’t say much for that industry.

“I have more faith in them than they do,” he added.

As a buyer, Sarandos is confident that a subscription service model like his own juggernaut “is a better way to monetize most movies. Not all movies, but most movies.”

Sarandos was quick to add a significant point about why it’s a good idea for filmmakers to make a deal with Netflix. “Nobody has ever lost money making a movie for Netflix,” he insisted. “Ever. Every movie we make is profitable.”

Click here to read more from the Cannes issue of TheWrap Magazine.