Cannes: Dealmakers Starting to Embrace Netflix Despite Disruption

Ted Sarandos Thierry Fremaux Getty - H 2017
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The streaming video giant continues to be the topic of debate on the Croisette.

When a technical mishap disrupted the press screening of Bong Joon Ho's Okja on Friday morning, the irony was lost on no one.

As the first-ever Netflix movie to screen in Cannes, Okja has become a symbol of the streaming giant's disruption of the traditional film business. Netflix's plan to release Okja online-only in most markets appears to have put the company on a collision course with Cannes and this year's jury president, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar.

In his first Cannes press conference, Almodovar read a prepared statement saying he didn't think the Palme d'Or should be given “to a film that is then not seen on the big screen,” something many took as a sign Okja — and Netflix's other competition title, Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories — had been preemptively excluded from consideration.

A jury member was overheard at a Cannes party worrying that “people will say [our Palme d'Or] decision is made because of what [Almodovar] said in the press conference.”

But while cinema purists are ganging up on Netflix (there were plenty of boos, along with cheers, from the crowd of film critics when the company's logo flashed during Okja's opening credits Friday), the indie industry has broadly accepted, even welcomed, the streamer's disruptive presence.

“Consumers clearly want more flexibility and that, combined with the financials, will drive us to some sort of adjusted model,” said Paul Hanson of indie production and sales group Covert Media. “We are heading in a direction where there will be a lot more flexibility” between producers, traditional theatrical distributors and deep-pocketed online giants, he said.

Mega-producer Brett Ratner, speaking Friday in Cannes, said he sees Netflix and fellow streamer Amazon as saviors for the kind of mid-budget movie that is almost impossible to make work, financially, at the box office these days. Indeed, before Netflix swooped in, Okja had been shopped to traditional distributors, but they balked at the risk involved in backing a $55 million film from a Korean director with no built-in franchise hook.

Netflix has positioned itself as the plucky outsider fighting the system — CEO Reed Hastings attacked Cannes critics with a Facebook post saying: “The establishment [is] closing ranks against us." But the company is already showing some flexibility of its own. Okja will have a wide theatrical release in South Korea — day-and-date with its online bow — as well as an awards-season qualification run in theaters in the U.S.

And while the company continues to acquire worldwide rights for many films — including, controversially, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, which riled many international distributors who had been counting on the box-office potential of the Robert De Niro/Al Pacino drama — Netflix has also begun, for certain films, to buy for just a handful of international territories, leaving rights, and money, on the table for theatrical companies worldwide.

“We’re seeing both Netflix and Amazon compete for things internationally, and they’re cherry-picking specific territories or specific footprints, which for us as sellers is a major boost,” says Stuart Ford, founder and CEO of IM Global. “That’s great. It obviously is introducing another significant level of competition for the independent distributors, but from a market perspective obviously that competition is a good thing.”