The Cannes Film Festival is still three weeks away, but we can already agree on its biggest disappointment: the fact that “The Other Side of the Wind” won’t premiere there. For years, it has been the Holy Grail of movie buffs to experience Orson Welles’ final film — or, at least, a scrupulously assembled version of what it might have been. “The Other Side of the Wind” has the potential to be the cinematic equivalent of the triumphant 2004 reconstruction of Brian Wilson’s album “Smile”: the fragments of a (possible) masterpiece pulled together and finally made whole. And Cannes has always felt like the right, reverent place for it.
The reason it isn’t happening, of course, is that “The Other Side of the Wind” is being distributed by Netflix, the streaming colossus that shepherded and financed the film’s reconstruction. Last week, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, announced that the company was pulling out of the festival entirely. The decision was made to protest what Netflix views as Cannes’ overly restrictive requirements for what defines a competition film (i.e., it must have a theatrical release in France), a policy that runs counter to the Netflix model. Because of the company’s decision, other highly anticipated Netflix films, like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and Paul Greengrass’ “Norway,” will also not be shown at Cannes.
The conflict between Cannes and Netflix, which erupted last year when the inclusion of two Netflix films — “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” and “Okja” — in the competition raised hackles among Netflix’s detractors, has now escalated into a full-fledged Cold War. This year, you can truly register the impact. Sight unseen, the recently announced Cannes lineup feels thin, quiet and a bit wan, like a Christmas tree without enough ornaments. The Cuarón, Greengrass and — especially — Welles films would have made an enormous difference.
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Yet savor, for a moment, the grand irony. The decision by Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux and his executive board to maintain a hard line on the theatrical distribution question is Cannes’ way of keeping the big screen and the small screen separate. It’s the festival’s way of preserving the independence (and purity) of cinema. Yet the result of this policy is that Orson Welles, the filmmaker who invented independence in cinema, will not have his day at Cannes.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? Who’s winning and losing the war? And what, if anything, does the war mean?
Cannes, in my opinion, has every right to demand that the films that play in competition also play in theaters. No one would expect the Oscars to nominate movies that are available only through streaming services. Yet France, with its state-run (some would say socialist) ethos, is a country thick with rules and regulations. The real sticking point in this imbroglio is the stipulation that a film can’t stream in France until three years after it has played theatrically. To American ears, that rule sounds extreme — and, indeed, I’d call it a total anachronism. Yet it’s a law on the books, and Cannes, as long as it insists on theatrical distribution, has no choice but to play by it.
Of course, Cannes didn’t ban Netflix from the festival — just from the competition. And Netflix, while it has the right to be annoyed, if not furious, at France’s three-year theatrical/streaming rule, retaliated in a way that can only be called punitive. If we can’t compete in the top tier, then you can’t have any of our films! Sarandos told Variety that he saw himself as celebrating “the art of cinema,” and that he is now fighting for its future. He claims that Cannes is holding too tightly onto cinema’s past.
Maybe so. Yet the Cold War between Cannes and Netflix, while it has taken the form of a chest-thumping ego contest, represents a genuine clash of values in which the symbolic meaning for each side has become more important than any one film.
You could argue that Cannes’ obsession with tradition is now hurting the festival; this year, it (willingly) sacrificed some of its own limelight. Yet Netflix, if it were truly the guardian of cinema’s future, might have agreed to let “The Other Side of the Wind,” at least, be shown out of competition. The company uses signifiers to dramatize its commitment to movies (they include its original backing of the Welles film and the $125 million budget it handed to Martin Scorsese to make “The Irishman”). Yet its avowed lack of interest in theatrical distribution may be the ultimate signifier. Netflix, in its way, really is out to create the future of cinema — a future that doesn’t include movie theaters. And if the Cold War between Cannes and Netflix seems like a pissing contest, when it comes to the question of whether we want to watch great movies in theaters or would be just as happy (if not more) seeing them only at home, this war forces everyone to take a stand. It asks: Which side are you on?