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Cannes Keeps Netflix Movies in Competition but Says Future Films Must Have Theatrical Release

PARIS – A week before its opening ceremony, the Cannes Film Festival said Wednesday that it would keep Netflix movies “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” in competition despite opposition from French exhibitors but that, in future, all competition titles “will have to commit…to being distributed in French movie theaters.”

The festival’s board had convened a meeting Tuesday to discuss the possibility of yanking both films from competition, as recommended by France’s exhibitors’ association, which is represented on the board. Although the idea was rejected, the festival issued a statement Wednesday expressing regret over Netflix’s decision not to release the films widely in French cinemas.

“Cannes is aware of the anxiety aroused by the absence of the release in theaters of those films in France. The Festival de Cannes asked Netflix in vain to accept that these two films could reach the audience of French movie theaters and not only its subscribers,” the statement said, adding: “The festival regrets that no agreement has been reached.”

The festival said it had decided to “adapt its rules” for the future. Starting next year, “any film that wishes to compete in competition at Cannes will have to commit itself to being distributed in French movie theaters.”

Reacting to Cannes’s new rule, Netflix’s Reed Hastings wrote on his Facebook account that “the establishment [is] closing ranks against us.”

Hastings added: “See Okja on Netflix June 28th. Amazing film that theatre chains want to block us from entering into Cannes film festival competition.”

Meanwhile, sources say Netflix has begun negotiations with The Jokers, a French distribution company, and the CNC, France’s National Film Board, to obtain a temporary visa that would allow it to release Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” day and date on its streaming service, along with a one-week theatrical rollout in several theaters. The limited release would allow Netflix to get around France’s strict regulation forbidding films that have been in wide theatrical release from being made available on an SVOD platform for three years.

But the CNC is also facing pressure from local guilds, especially from exhibitors who say that a temporary release is insufficient. A decision on the permit has not yet been made.

Although Cannes opted to maintain Netflix’s films in competition without a traditional theatrical release, the festival’s new rule is likely to pose a major obstacle for Netflix unless France tweaks its windowing rules. Discussions to amend the regulations have been deadlocked for several years, but many industry players are hopeful that the upcoming government of President-elect Emmanuel Macron will take a pragmatic approach and shake up the window release schedule.

“Between day-and-date and 36 months, there is a wide margin, and we should be able to come up with a compromise,” said Edouard Waintrop, the head of Directors Fortnight.

Netflix has premiered films at other high-profile European festivals, including Berlin. In 2015, when Venice decided to include the streaming giant’s “Beasts of No Nation” in competition, artistic director Alberto Barbera faced some backlash but stood by his choice.

Barbera told Variety on Wednesday that he sympathized with Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, saying that “it must not have been an easy decision.”

“We are in the throes of a market that has evolved and changed too fast, without any rules being set. There are so many interests and agendas at stake: those of exhibitors, distributors, sales agents, producers and filmmakers. But the role of a festival is separate from all this. Its role is to be a platform for quality cinema – select it, make it emerge, support it,” without making it conditional “on how it can be seen,” Barbera said.

“For me, cinema remains an experience that is tied to movie theaters,” he added. “But we cannot fail to realize that, with the arrival of new platforms, there is no turning back, and festivals must not be forced to take sides.”

Fremaux has faced similar pressures in the past from exhibitors and other guilds. In 2009, his selection of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” for the competition lineup sparked protest from the festival board, which is made up of representatives from the exhibitors guild, the CNC and other film-industry associations. The opponents noted that “Carlos” was a TV miniseries that would not be shown in theaters.

Fremaux backpedaled and moved “Carlos” out of competition, which caused Assayas – and Fremaux himself – some frustration.

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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