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Netflix, Cannes Film Festival Still at Odds Over Theatrical Release Rules

Netflix’s plan to release “Roma” and two other films theatrically in North America and Europe was hailed in the U.S. as a major shift in strategy for the streaming giant. But the initiative was met with a scornful shrug in France, where exhibitors say it’s unlikely by itself to produce a reconciliation between Netflix and the Cannes Film Festival. Film bodies in Italy and Germany, home to the Venice and Berlin fests, remain skeptical as well.

With six months to go before Cannes’ next edition, artistic director Thierry Frémaux says he believes a compromise can be found to welcome Netflix back on the Croisette. Last month, he and Cannes president Pierre Lescure met with Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos and film chief Scott Stuber at Frémaux’s Lumière Festival in Lyon, which screened “Roma” as part of a tribute to director Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix says talks are ongoing with Cannes to find a solution that “works well for both parties.”

But Frémaux, who nearly lost his job in 2017 after selecting two Netflix pics for competition, is walking on eggshells with French exhibitors and distributors, who are well-represented on the festival board and pushed last year for a rule requiring all movies to have a local theatrical release in order to play in competition. That rule prompted Netflix this year to bring “Roma” to Venice, where it won the Golden Lion.

Some industry players in France believed that “Roma’s” victory in Venice would be a big enough argument for Cannes to scrap its new rule. But a member of Cannes’ board told Variety that only an Oscar win could potentially make the board reconsider its position toward Netflix, and even then, French exhibitors would be opposed. Netflix’s planned theatrical release in the U.S. and elsewhere of “Roma,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Bird Box” also cuts little ice in France.

“What Netflix is doing with these three movies is nothing more than qualifying runs for the Oscars,” says Richard Patry, president of FNCF, the French national exhibitors organization and an influential member of Cannes’ board. “They just want to win an Oscar and please their high-profile filmmakers. But why should Netflix benefit from the prestige of film honors and festivals without respecting the codes of film industries around the world?”

Michèle Halberstadt of ARP Selection, one of France’s top distribution players, called on “all A-list festivals to unite and have a common political stance, rather than pit Cannes against Venice and Venice against Toronto.”

Officially, Netflix says it doesn’t intend to replicate in France what it’s doing in the U.S. and elsewhere. “We’re not considering doing theatrical releases in France due to the window release schedule,” a spokesperson says, referring to the mandatory 36-month lag between a film’s appearance in cinemas and its availability on a subscription streaming service. However, a French industry source says Netflix has had talks with at least two local distribution outfits about a theatrical release for “Roma.”

Netflix is also aiming to release the three films in Britain, Italy and Germany, although industry groups in the last two nations have cold-shouldered the idea of the company hosting limited or day-and-date releases.

“Why should Netflix benefit from the prestige of film honors and festivals without respecting the codes of film industries around the world?”
Richard Patry, FNCF president

In Italy, Netflix is working with Cineteca di Bologna, a well-known film archive with a boutique distribution arm, to release “Roma” on about 50 screens for three days starting Dec. 4. Netflix had worked with Italian distributor Lucky Red to release local drama “On My Skin” — one of the streamer’s six titles in Venice — on about 80 Italian screens the same day that the film appeared online. A backlash over that day-and-date release prompted Lucky Red boss Andrea Occhipinti to step down as head of the national distributors association.

“Our cinema is not afraid of change, and has always proved that,” says RAI Cinema chief Paolo Del Brocco. “But a film, to call itself such, cannot do away with playing in a movie theater. To look at the Italian market just in terms of economic returns would be unacceptable for our history and for what cinema represents for our country.”

In Germany, HDF Kino, which represents cinema owners, has warned the Berlin Film Festival not to welcome Netflix movies. Selection for next February’s fest is underway.

Netflix doesn’t face the same resistance in Britain, where some independent cinemas have lobbied for the right to show Netflix titles. In partnership with Curzon Cinemas, the company is releasing “Roma” in the U.K. and currently has “Buster Scruggs” in theaters. Curzon previously handled the U.K. theatrical release of such Netflix films as “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” and “Okja.”

Those two films competed in Cannes last year, which sparked the fury of French distributors and exhibitors. For the festival’s upcoming edition in May, Frémaux is likely to have his eye on Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which also belongs to Netflix. Whether he will have mollified both the French industry and the U.S. streamer by then is anybody’s guess.

Stewart Clarke in London and Nick Vivarelli in Rome contributed to this report.

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