Okja by Bong Joon-ho starring Tilda Swinton (left). Photo: Cannes
Okja by Bong Joon-ho starring Tilda Swinton (left). Photo: Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival has had a mixed reception to its 70th birthday. One reviewer called some of the films in the selection “slow and lengthy,” a sign perhaps of creeping geriatrics in a fast-moving world.

That world has caught up with Cannes and in a year of ho-hum films, the talk has turned from art to commerce.

The big debate on the Croisette is about the survival of cinema in a digital age, and more pointedly, the survival and role of a festival when audiences are increasingly programming their own film festival from the comfort of their living room.

For Cannes, this debate is driven by the presence at the festival of the pioneering online film platform, Netflix.

The US giant has two films in competition – Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories.

Director of Netflix original Okja Bong Joon-ho with the cast Tilda Swinton, Ahn Seo-hyeon, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Devon Bostic, and Paul Dano. Photo: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Okja is a Disney-esque tale revolving around a genetically engineered pig with Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, directed by the most internationally successful Korean filmmaker to date, Bong Joon-ho.

The Meyerowitz Stories is a New York tale about family dysfunction by Noah Baumbach, with a surprisingly nuanced Adam Sandler, and worthy performances from Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman.

These productions do not come cheap, but with Netflix claiming 100 million subscribers worldwide paying an average of at least US$10 per month, the digital streaming platform has deeper pockets than a major Hollywood studio, and saves on the exorbitant costs of bricks, and mortars distribution and exhibition by delivering directly to the audience.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, director of the film Okja.
Cannes. Photo: AFP/Jung Ha-won

All of this has appalled the French who over the years, but especially in this era of Donald Trump, define themselves in relation to the Americans and regard themselves as keepers of the flame in the face of a vulgar invasion that threatens everything that is worth living for, including the cinema.

The French are shocked that the only theatrical screening a movie may get is the one on the Cannes screen, after which Netflix would deliver it to the masses on their TV sets.

This goes against the grain of the French “exception” a form of snobbery that ensures cultural products (i.e. “art”) remain unsullied in trade negotiations over things like Mirage fighter jets, wines from Bordeaux, and Normandy butter.

Read: From blacklist to blockbuster – Bong Joon-ho bounces back at Cannes

The world premiere projection of Okja at Cannes was marred by the wrong screen ratio that cut off parts of the picture. Despite a groundswell of audience booing and clapping to correct the mistake, the projectionists took up to 10 minutes to set things right.

Okja by Bong Joon-ho. Photo: Cannes

Speculation was rife that this “mistake” was a protest by the French projectionists union against Netflix and the real possibility it represents that in future, Cannes films may not screen in a movie house after their world premiere. With a diminished need for cinema projection, obviously some jobs are on the line.

The festival quickly set out to dispel this notion, declaring that the films it screens must have theatrical release in France. More painful for financiers though is the union position that films must wait three years after theatrical release before they are made available online in France.

While it has been a de facto position for several years now that films in Cannes competition at least should have French distribution attached, it has been open to interpretation and thus flexible.

The Meyerowitz Stories by Noah Baumbach starring Adam Sandler, Grace Van Patten and Dustin Hoffman. Photo: Cannes

Unexpectedly, the online studios are rapidly becoming major producers of the type of auteur fare beloved by film festivals.

A prime example is Wonderstruck by indie darling Todd Haynes, produced by Amazon Studios. The film is an eccentric mix of silent film, ’70s street movie, and stop-motion animation (the type that brought young Haynes attention).

It is precisely the indie film that major Hollywood studios have mostly abandoned and smaller production houses cannot sustain.

At the same time you wonder what algorithms on audience taste that Amazon is using to formulate this cocktail of disparate film forms and who exactly will be consuming it.

Wonderstruck by Todd Haynes. Photo: Cannes

In any event, an online studio is definitely not going to wait three years before delivering such a shiny product to their subscribers.

So the battle lines are drawn – to gain the sunshine of Cannes publicity and prestige, a film needs a French theatrical distributor, and be prepared to forgo the potentially lucrative online sale for three years (by which time, the value of the film would probably have declined).

For the online studios, both may not only be unacceptable, but also unnecessary. In Cannes, you can talk about art, but it is money that really does the talking.

A compromise may be possible in the near term, but the writing on the wall – even if just speculation – is scary.

In future you may see the live film festival (red carpet glam, world premiere) as a premium pay-per-view option on your streaming service. The professional film festival in the home may be closer than we think.