Cannes: Wild Bunch's Vincent Maraval Backs Netflix

Okja 3 - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

"I don’t understand why Thierry Fremaux let that polemic develop," he says of the debate about the streaming giant's films in the official selection, while another French industry insider supports the festival.

One of the most powerful French film industry figures is backing Netflix over the Cannes Film Festival following a rule change aimed at the U.S. SVOD giant.

Festival organizers last week unveiled a requirement for competition films to have traditional theatrical distribution in French theaters after the French Cinema Federation (FNCF) objected to the inclusion of two Netflix films in Cannes' official selection. They are sci-fi competition entry Okja from festival regular Bong Joon-Ho and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, the Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller-starrer screening out of competition.

The new rule brings up more questions than answers, says Wild Bunch head Vincent Maraval, one of France’s most prolific producers. “Half of the Un Certain Regard selection [films] are not released theatrically in France. So what do we do? How do you make a regulation? So if a film is sold to Netflix during Cannes, do we take it out of competition? If a film has no French distributor it cannot be in an international film festival?”

Maraval notes that Okja was already slated for traditional release with top distributor NEW in its home country of South Korea.

“What shocks me is the hypocrisy,” says Maraval, noting that French films that compete in Venice or Berlin may never get theatrical distribution in Italy or Germany, without complaints from those countries’ industry. He says that France is trying to drag other countries into its internal windowing battle.

"Cannes is an international film festival. The French FNCF shouldn’t interfere," he says. "I don’t understand why Thierry Fremaux let that polemic develop, why he didn’t say in the beginning it’s an international festival…you can’t interfere with the festival choice." 

Under current rules, there was no easy way out for Netflix. A half measure to do a "temporary" mini-release would have triggered the country’s strict media chronology laws that require a 36-month waiting period, and the CNC in any case denied Netflix's permit request.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hit back with a post on Facebook, saying: "The establishment closing ranks against us.… See Okja on Netflix June 28th. Amazing film that theater chains want to block us from entering into Cannes film festival competition."

The company would have to change its model in order to enter the festival competition again in the future.

Netflix produced and fully financed Okja, while it picked up Meyerowitz just three days before the official lineup announcement. It was the last competition film unveiled for Cannes after festival director Thierry Fremaux — perhaps sensing the oncoming onslaught — “almost forgot” to mention it.

Jean Labadie, head of film distribution and sales association Le Pacte, who distributed Joon-Ho’s last film Snowpiercer in France, supports the festival's decision, and he and Maraval have been battling it out on Twitter. Labadie says the lack of theatrical distribution in France would be “a pity” at the country’s premier film festival and calls the possibility of the film winning a Palme d’Or and not being seen in theaters "dangerous."

"France is a problem for Netflix because of the chronology of media," he says. "It is also a big market where they surely want to succeed. If they could break the French way of showing a film…it would make them more attractive for the French audience. It would be a victory for them. But I am not sure it would be a victory for cinema."

Maraval says that the French industry has had it out for Netflix since it launched in France in 2015 and that the industry was “aggressive” and did not want to work with the newcomer.

"If the Cannes rule is to require French theatrical distribution, distributors need theaters to support small art house films because the three-year window leaves films to be forgotten or be pirated. It’s an economic model producers can’t sustain," says Maraval. “We don’t want to do two campaigns,” he says, with big-bucks marketing budgets essentially lost if a film isn’t an instant hit. “We don’t want to take that risk anymore.”

“The theaters complain there is a Netflix film in the main competition, but if someone had that film for distribution, they would not program it or program it for one week and that’s it,” he says, noting that in France big corporations, including UGC and Pathe, run most screens.

But Labadie counters that art house theaters are the backbone of the French system and they should be allowed the option.

“Those rules make France number one in admissions in Europe, those rules make the French cinema more present in film festivals around the world than the English, Spanish, German etc. Those rules allow us to co-finance films from all over the world,” he says. “The French system is not perfect, but it’s better than the rest of the world,” says Labadie. "It’s set up to protect authors, directors and producers, even if it is cumbersome."

Labadie says Netflix and co still have a major advantage over the independents because they can finance films in one fell swoop. “Independent [financing] is a more difficult way to finance a film than having Netflix, which can write one big check,” he says.

The loss of indie mini-majors like Paramount Classics, Focus, Warner Classics and Picturehouse proved that “the system was not working,” says Maraval.  "Barring the occasional Xavier Dolan film or other big name director, sales for anything that was not a franchise dried up until these new platforms came around."

Netflix — and Amazon, which will launch later this year in France and does support theatrical release — have given new life to the dying indie film industry, Maraval says, noting they have helped directors such as Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch who couldn’t secure funding anymore.

“They are redefining the economy for [smaller] films. They are giving an opportunity to exploit your films in a different way and get some financial returns,” Maraval says. “It’s just giving more oxygen to the cinema industry.”