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Netflix defends Cannes strategy, cites culture change


    Actors Jake Gyllenhaal, from left, Lily Collins, Paul Dano, Tilda Swinton and director Bong Joon-Ho pose for photographers upon arrival at the screening of the film “Okja” at the 70th international film festival in Cannes today.

CANNES, France >> As controversy continued to swirl here over the presence of two Netflix titles that are playing in the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition but won’t appear in any French theaters, the streaming giant finally broke its silence with a message that could be summed up as: The culture is changing and we listen to our 100 million customers.

“We’re living amid a generation that has seen every great movie ever made on a phone, so I think we all have to come to grips with where technology takes us,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said in a 90-minute interview today.

Sarandos said Netflix had chafed at a French rule requiring a three-year delay between a film’s theatrical release and appearance on a streaming service, part of the country’s complex film-financing system.

(Talks in France to reduce that delay broke down this month; France’s new government is expected to tackle the issue.)

The company’s offerings here include “Okja,” Bong Joon-ho’s fantasy film about a genetically modified pig, and when the Netflix credit appeared on-screen today at the first media screening, loud boos arose from the audience, followed by some cheers. The divided house captured the moment at Cannes at this year, where Netflix has dominated conversations.

(Even more boos broke out when the film’s framing was off for the first few minutes. It was started again from the beginning and the festival issued a statement apologizing for the technical problem.)

Under pressure from French film entities, the festival announced last week that it had changed its rules to require future competition films to have a French theatrical release.

At a news conference here on May 17, Pedro Almodóvar, the Cannes jury president, read a manifesto defending theatrical screenings and said it would be a paradox to give the Palme d’Or to a film that wouldn’t be seen on screens. “The size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair you’re sitting on,” Almodóvar said.

“You must be feel small and humble in front of the image,” he added.

Sarandos called that view “beautifully romantic.”

“Why would we want to hold back a movie for an enormous number of people to enjoy throughout the entire country that a few hundred, maybe a few thousand people could see the film in Paris?” Sarandos said. “It seemed to me like the right thing to do was to give the people, our subscribers, who pay to make these movies, access to them immediately all over the world,” he added.

Asked if the festival organizers were aware that Netflix wasn’t seeking a wide theatrical release in France, Sarandos said, “They were fully aware of our release strategy.”

Not everyone here was critical of Netflix. A Cannes juror, Will Smith, defended it at the news conference with Almodóvar.

“In my home it’s done nothing but broaden my children’s cinematic global comprehension,” he said. Smith stars in “Bright,” a thriller that will debut on Netflix this year.

Another actor said that he was drawn to a Netflix project because of the company’s large viewership. At a news conference for “Okja” here Friday, Jake Gyllenhaal, a co-star, said he had wanted the movie — with its strong environmentalist message, and critique of capitalism and genetically modified food — to connect with a wide audience.

“The platform of a film, how far it can reach, how many people it can get to reach a message, is extraordinarily important,” Gyllenhaal said. “It’s a true a blessing when any art can reach one person if not hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.”

The other Netflix-produced film at the festival is “The Meyerowitz Stories,” directed by Noah Baumbach.

Netflix has local content in 23 languages and is currently filming in 19 countries. This year it will distribute 50 feature films, not including documentaries. Sarandos wouldn’t reveal how many subscribers Netflix has in France or elsewhere, saying only that half of its 100 million subscribers are in the United States and the rest are in 189 other countries.

“It’s a very competitive marketplace,” he said, declining to break down the numbers any further.

He said that about 30 percent of the content Netflix subscribers watch in any country on an average day was local, although that can vary, and that Netflix had invested 1.75 billion euros (about $1.9 billion) in European content since 2012.

It was at a previous Cannes Film Festival that Sarandos made a connection with Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director. They went to a screening of a newly restored “The Lady From Shanghai” by Orson Welles.

“That’s when we bonded and he saw I really do love movies,” Sarandos said.

Netflix is financing the completion of “The Other Side of the Wind,” Welles’ unfinished film. Sarandos hopes it might debut at Cannes.

“I’ve talked to Thierry many times and said this is where we’d like to show it,” he said.

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