Netflix has been having quite a year in the movie business. First, they went on an acquisition spree at Sundance to help shore up its original offerings, nabbing the rights to Dee Rees' "Mudbound," Marti Noxon's "To the Bone," and a slew of documentaries. It already had the rights to Macon Blair's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," which wound up winning the Grand Jury prize, and was released on Netflix's streaming services in February. That same month it signed its most high profile acquisition deal yet - for Martin Scorsese's upcoming "The Irishman," which will reunite Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.
However, the real fireworks would come in May, when the Cannes film festival decided to make a significant rule change in response to two of the films in competition having been produced by Netflix: Bong Joon-ho's "Okja," and Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories." The new rule states that entries have to have French theatrical runs starting next year, which means that Netflix may be forced to keep its films out of future competitions. Unlike in the US, France has stringent rules that require a 36 month delay between a film's theatrical and subscription service streaming releases. Netflix's current practice is to release its films simultaneously in theaters and online, if it releases the films theatrically at all.
Cannes jurors and commentators have debated the move, while there have been reports of Netflix's production credit being booed during the festival's screenings of its movies. American theater owners have been pushing back against the various studios' efforts to cut into theatrical exclusivity with SVOD services and other changes to the current distribution model, but the Cannes reaction has been far more vocal. This year's jury members, including Pedro Almodovar and Will Smith, made a few headlines as they debated the merits of theatergoing versus streaming. The response didn't carry over to the movies themselves, however. "Meyerowitz" has received excellent notices, while the response to "Okja" has been more mixed.
This has been the most visible example of the clash between the boosters of traditional theatrical distribution and Netflix, which has been the most extreme of the content producers pushing for a distribution model that bypasses or greatly reduces the theatrical window. Amazon has also been acquiring and producing films lately, including "Manchester by the Sea" and "The Lost City of Z," but have generally followed the existing distribution models, holding back their streaming premieres until after the usual theatrical and rental windows have passed.
Netflix, however, very pointedly doesn't follow the established rules. And this is going to continue to be an issue as bigger and bigger films start coming out of the Netflix pipeline. As it gets harder to fund or sell certain projects in the traditional way, Netflix's pocketbook keeps attracting more talent. It's going to be difficult to ignore all the star power of "The Irishman" at Oscar time, but what happens if Netflix won't give it more than a cursory qualifying theatrical run? What if theaters refuse to play it, as some did with "Beasts of No Nation"?
I'll admit that my first reaction to hearing that "Mudbound" had been acquired by Netflix was to hope that it wouldn't affect the film's award season chances the way I felt it had impacted some of their past films. "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" had almost no press whatsoever when Netflix released it, except for a round of complaints from some critics, who thought that that it was too difficult to find on the service. "War Machine," despite all the attention and big names, also came and went very quietly.
However, as director Macon Blair spelled out, the benefits of a Netflix release are obvious: more eyeballs having more access to a film faster than anyone else. In the end the distribution fight is really about money, and the theaters worried about losing it if the audience decides to stay home. When it comes to the talent, ultimately the filmmakers are going to go wherever they'll be able to make the films and shows that they want to make, and have them seen.
These days, that's as likely to be with a streaming services as it is a traditional studio or distributor. The festivals and the rest of the moviemaking world are just going to have to adjust expectations.