The prestigious Cannes Film Festival famously missed out on screening Alfonso Cuaron's 10-time Oscar-nominated Roma last year thanks to its ongoing feud with Netflix, and history might just repeat itself this year.
The festival attracted the ire of France's cinema exhibitors when Netflix debuted at Cannes with Bong Joon-ho's Okja in 2017. The cinema owners, toeing the same line as some cinema purists including Steven Spielberg, argued that movies destined for streaming services had no place at a film festival. They argued that only films destined for a French theatre release, and that will observe France's standard 36-month, post-cinema window before transferring to TV or streaming, should be allowed.
Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux responded by banning all Netflix films from appearing in competition at the festival by way of a compromise with cinema owners. Netflix, however, was unimpressed, and completely withdrew from last year's event, screening its movies elsewhere instead. Roma premiered at September's Venice Film Festival.
With the Cannes line-up due to be announced imminently, on April 18, peace talks are still ongoing between the two sides. Sources close to the debate suggest that Netflix is likely to boycott the festival for a second year running, failing a dramatic about-turn from Fremaux, however.
Although it's not confirmed that any of Netflix's current crop of award-tipped movies will definitely be complete in time for Cannes in May, that could mean the festival misses out on Martin Scorsese's hugely anticipated mob thriller The Irishman. The film's all-star cast includes Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. The movie is Scorsese's biggest-budget production to date with a price tag close to $200 million (Dh734.6 million), and is currently in post-production.
Steven Soderbergh also seems unlikely to return to the Riviera to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sex, Lies and Videotape's Palme d'Or win. His latest, the Meryl Streep-starring, Panama Papers-inspired The Laundromat is also a Netflix production, as is David Michod's Shakespearean adaptation The King. That film will be Michod's second for Netflix following 2017's War Machine, and all three are attracting plenty of pre-release awards buzz.
The Netflix-phobia seems, in part, to be due to France’s unique attachment to traditional cinema – the country, perhaps more than any other, retains a gorgeous network of traditional Art Deco and historical theatres, and compared to other Western nations even eschews the multiplex experience in favour of traditional independent picture houses.
Nicholas Seydoux, chief of French giant Gaumont Films, raised heckles on a visit to the Middle East last December, when he criticised the Venice Film Festival's selection of Netflix films, including Roma, earlier in the year. Seydoux told the audience at his own Cairo Film Festival masterclass: "It's not a film, no matter who is the director. The subject is that the definition of a film is that it has a first release in a cinema. Period."
French actress Melanie Laurent, who was in Abu Dhabi recently to shoot Michael Bay's Netflix action film 6 Underground, was not entirely in agreement with her countryman, however. The actress, who ironically starred as a French cinema owner in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, told The National during a break from filming: "I understand because the industry has changed, and every time industry changes, it takes time. I know a lot of festivals are still saying, 'this is a film for a phone or a computer, it's not cinema,' but it's going to change. Netflix do release cinemas in theatres sometimes too, so maybe there's a deal to be done around that."
She added that in the past she may have shared some of Seydoux’s concerns, but has moved on. “Maybe three years ago I was a bit worried too, but when you think about it, cinema is so expensive. You can’t afford to buy tickets for your family every night, and there’s so much pressure to make a film that makes money. We’ve lost the idea of making films for the sake of making films, just being creative, and that’s what Netflix gives you – the money and the freedom to just do what you have in mind,” she said.
“Twenty years ago we had all these amazing producers who would make something with heart and soul, and we lost that, it became all about blockbusters. Festivals will change their minds, though, because it’s all about movies. You’ll never replicate that emotion of being surrounded by people you don’t know and sharing emotions, but maybe we just need to talk about the world, because that’s what artists do, so if it’s going to affect people, let’s do it, even if it’s on a phone.”
Whether Cannes and Netflix can come to an agreement in time for May's festival remains to be seen. Among the non-Netflix films that appear likely to feature at this year's event is Quentin Tarantino's eagerly awaited Charles Manson drama Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which would tie in neatly with the 25th anniversary of Pulp Fiction's Palme d'Or win.
James Gray's sci-fi drama Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt, seems a likely candidate, too, as four of Gray's seven features to date have premiered at the festival. Gray did warn recently that post-production may not be completed in time, but 20th Century Fox has so far retained the announced May 23 release.
Cannes regular Jim Jarmusch also seems likely to be back in town with his zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die, starring a highly festival-friendly cast including Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi.
Ken Loach has also finished shooting his latest bleak drama, Sorry We Missed You. This film is currently in post-production, so we can't be sure it will show in Cannes, but if it is ready, a debut at the festival, and possibly more prizes for Loach, seems a dead cert.