Netflix’s decision to give the Cannes Film Festival a miss this year following the competition ban for films without theatrical distribution in France will likely pour oil on the country’s already inflamed media chronology debate.
The stand-off between the festival and the platform hinges in part on France’s strict media windows legislation which imposes a 36-month delay between a film’s theatrical release and its diffusion on an SVoD platform.
Under the existing framework, if Netflix were to release one of its once Cannes-tipped titles – such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma or Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark – theatrically in France in the next few months to secure a Cannes competition slot it would have to keep the title off its French Netflix platform until 2021.
Cuaron’s last film Gravity was a blockbuster hit when it was released theatrically in France in 2013, drawing more than three million spectators. But Saulnier’s last feature Green Room sold just 50,000 tickets after premiering in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2016.
It is not certain Netflix would organise theatrical releases in France if the media chronology did not exist.
Unlike its rival Amazon, Netflix has shown limited interest in supporting the theatrical release of its films. Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, for example, was given a mainstream release in Korea and limited releases in the US and the UK but was mainly watched on the small screen.
But it is not hard to see why the streaming giant is reluctant to take the plunge of a French theatrical release under the current chronology system.
According to figures obtained by French newspaper Liberation and released in an article last week, subscriptions for the platform have taken off this year and now stand at around 3.4 million. Netflix did not comment on Liberation’s findings.
This figure, if correct, puts Netflix ahead of France’s OCS, the hybrid digital platform of telecom company Orange, which has some 2.9 million subscriptions, but behind the country’s pay-TV giant Canal+, which currently has around 4.9 million subscriptions, the article stated.
Against this backdrop, the need for an update of the current media chronology, originally built around a film financing model underpinned by the broadcasters and theatrical release, is ever more apparent.
Critics of the framework say it is outdated and no longer reflects the reality of content production, distribution and consumption in the digital age. It also ties the hands of local theatrical players with digital aspirations who do not have access to big markets outside the country.
Few French film professionals want a free-for-all, however, as they are well aware of how the chronology system has successfully ring-fenced finance for film, so any overhaul will keep windows and obligations intact in some shape or form.
In a bid to resolve the issue, France’s Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen earlier this year appointed veteran film and TV executives Dominique d’Hinnin and François Hurard to pull together a reform proposal in consultation with film and TV professionals.
But local media reports suggest that a draft put on the table at the beginning of March is proposing only minor adjustments, such as reducing the theatrical to VoD window to three months against four months, and the first diffusion window for pay-TV channel Canal+ to seven months from the current 10-month delay. The SVoD window for international platforms would remain largely intact at 35 months, rather than 36.
Professionals had until March 19 to submit their reactions. D’Hinnin and François Hurard were then supposed to submit a final draft reform proposal to the government at the end of April.
The mediation process appears, however, to have come unstuck.
On Tuesday, four key professional guilds in the film and TV sector put out a joint open letter complaining the proposals did not go far enough.
Signatories included producers Marc Missonnier, Alain Goldman, Margaret Menegoz and Isabelle Madelaines and filmmakers Céline Sciamma, Rebecca ZlotowskI, Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano, Michel Hazanavicius and Luc Besson.
They said that an earlier reform proposal agreed upon in February had been watered down after the mediators came under pressure from “conservative” parties with “special interests”, a thinly veiled reference to France’s powerful exhibition lobby.
“This compromise devoid of all ambition is disappointing. We need profound change, modern regulation and real political will. We need a proper response to the digital revolution,” read the letter.
“Applying the conclusions of the mediators would be tantamount to deliberately turning your back on those who make the films, in favour only of those who exploit them.”
Guild negotiators behind the scenes say their members want a reformed media chronology that protects the interests of creators as well as domestic distribution players across all windows, who are the key financiers of local content, but also encourages the likes of Netflix and Amazon to step up and invest too, rather than shutting them point blank out of the system.
A key negotiator in the mediation told Screen at MIPTV this week that the mediation was dead in the water.
In the backdrop, Minister of Culture Nyssen has threatened to push through a legislative reform via parliament if the film and TV world cannot come up with a compromise proposal with broad sector support.
It remains to be seen if France’s decade-long media chronology debate is finally nearing its end, or is set to run and run.