Netflix Breaks Barriers in France, Highlights Larger Concern for Exhibitors

PARIS — Unveiling its pact with the Weinstein Co. to stream “St.Vincent” in France day-and-date with its U.S. theatrical release on Oct. 24, Netflix has sparked concerns over France’s strict windows’ schedule.

When Netflix launched Sept. 15 in France, local industryites claimed the streaming service would have a limited impact because it didn’t have a deal with a major telco operator for set-top distribution, and would have to wait three years to get movies as per Gaul’s strict SVOD window set at 36 months after theatrical bow.

But in less than two months, Netflix has managed to break significant barriers, first by signing three distribution deals with Bouygues, Orange and SFR, and now with this pact allowing the service to gain exclusive rights to fresh movies – “St. Vincent” with Bill Murray and another TWC title, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” with Jessica Chastain–  thus bypassing a theatrical release in France.

French journos have nonetheless pointed out the modest performances of these two movies, which might explain why it wasn’t acquired by a French distributor, assuming that TWC offered it first to local distribs before inking with Netflix.

“It’s a logical decision considering the performance of these two movies that may have world premiered at Toronto and Cannes, but ended up having a box office run which underscored their (low) commercial potential,” said a journo on Zdnet.fr.

Although the movies could still technically get bought by a French TV channel, it’s unlikely.

It’s not the first time a movie is released straight on a digital platform in France: Wild Bunch made the experiment in May with “Welcome to New York,” Abel Ferrara’s controversial chronicle of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s indictment, rolling off the pic on FilmoTV. And as Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval explained at the time, FilmoTV wasn’t violating France’s window schedule since the movie hadn’t been acquired by a traditional distributor and hadn’t been pre-bought by a pay TV channel, which meant that no one but Wild Bunch could claim exclusive rights to the movie.

But in the case of Netflix, it represents a much larger concern for local industry players, notably exhibitors. Indeed, Netflix could tap into the growing number of appealing U.S. indies which aren’t acquired by cash-strapped and/or cautious French distributors.

As it does in the U.S., Netflix strives to position itself as a premium channel rather than a SVOD platform in France. As such, it’s part of Netflix’s strategy to follow the same path as French pay TV giant Canal Plus and go after exclusive first-window rights to films and shows.

“We see our decision to bring St. Vincent” and “Eleanor Rigby” to our viewers in France so quickly as similar to what other premium channels in France have been doing for many years,” said a spokesperson for Netflix in Europe.

Again, Netflix will certainly be filling a gap left by Canal Plus. In the last two years, the pay TV group has been reducing its acquisitions of U.S. indies because they are not part of the paybox’s investment and programming quotas (which only apply to French and European movies).

French exhibs have yet to release official comments on Netflix’s actions. In the meantime, some local players have been discussing for years ways to make the window release schedule more flexible in France in order to allow movies without distribution deals to be available on VOD. But so far that debate has been stuck in a deadlock, as it’s often the case in France, because of conflicting interests between right-holders, exhibitors and pay TV groups.

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