Cannes As A Marketplace: Star Wars, Netflix, And A Culture Shift

How this year's Cannes Film Fest has become a PR battleground.

In case you missed it, Solo: A Star Wars Story sprung its "surprise" Cannes Film Fest premiere on us less than a week ago, marking it as the third film in the series to come to the Croisette, following '02’s Attack of the Clones and '05’s Revenge of the Sith. Yet the most fascinating element of Disney/Lucasfilm's decision to debut the latest adventure in a galaxy far, far away at the Riviera gala isn't so much the movie itself, but rather the timing of its bow.

Rewind your minds a mere two months – back to Super Bowl Weekend – when we were essentially playing guessing games as to when the initial trailer for Solo was even going to arrive (again, quick refresher: it dropped February 4th). Speculation was running recklessly rampant, as nobody even knew if Disney was going to stick to their planned May 25th release date, after the departure of Lord & Miller and subsequent replacement by legendary Hollywood workman Ron Howard (who reportedly re-shot the majority of the picture). With that entire fracas going down in June ‘17, a turnaround of less than a calendar year on a production this size seemed like an impossible task that would make even John Wick wince. 

Nevertheless, Disney is not only making the May 25th date, but will be debuting Solo almost two weeks early in France, on May 15th. This is an extraordinary vote of confidence from the Mouse House, who are using the world's most prestigious international film festival as a giant neon billboard that screams: "We're All Fine Here Now, Thank You." It's a rather bold move by a studio that’s been combatting the aforementioned second guessing, letting the world know (or at least believe) that they've got another box office sure thing on their hands, despite massive behind the scenes tinkering (creative meddling that's unfortunately become something of a trend, if Tony Gilroy is to be believed). 

Yet beyond being a vouch for the quality of their latest intergalactic serial entry, Cannes is being utilized by Disney to sell their wares overseas. As easy as it is to become distracted by the movie stars, red carpets, and yacht parties that dominate these beautiful beaches in May, the fest is a bigger marketplace than it is a celebration of cinema; it's debatably the prettiest filmic yard sale you've ever seen. Though there are 19 titles in competition, 18 Un Certain Regard, and 9 spotlighted shorts (with separate sidebars that have their own, lesser publicized awards), there's also Le Marché du Film, where over 1400 screenings are held for thousands of industry professionals, many of which are looking to buy. In short, if you've made a movie and want to sell it to a distributor, Le Marché is probably one of the markets where you want it to play. 

Obviously Solo has a distributor, but what playing Cannes gives it is an international presence to compliment critical appraisal (which, let’s be honest, unless Howard’s film is an utter dud, will probably benefit from lowered expectations thanks to the BTS strife). This is where the picture’s appearance at the fest boils down almost strictly to a numbers game, which Disney is very keen to play with a blockbuster of this size. If we're only comparing Solo to the last stand-alone Star Wars StoryRogue One, even a hypothetical 5% increase on that movie’s international market share (roughly $523 million) could mean all the difference. 

To make it very simple (with math that comes courtesy of our own James Emanuel Shapiro), if Solo were to make $300 million domestically, a 5% international increase on Rogue One's market share would translate to $66.66 million additional revenue. Were it to make $450 million domestically, that'd translate to $100 million internationally. Taking this number up to a max figure of $600 million at the box office (which could happen, as Rogue One also made $523 mil in the US), the 5% increase suddenly becomes $133.33 million. In short, the international presence is key, as a debut at Cannes carries a lot of weight overseas (certainly more than in the States) and could easily result in this percentage.

Disney isn't the only studio playing a PR game at Cannes, as Netflix just struck a blow against the fest, in a feud that also began brewing over the last few weeks. On March 23rd, Cannes head Theirry Fremaux announced that Netflix Originals would no longer be allowed to compete for the event's top awards (though could still play in the sidebars), stating: 

"The Netflix people loved the red carpet and would like to be present with other films. But they understand that the intransigence of their own model is now the opposite of ours. We have to take into account the existence of these powerful new players: Amazon, Netflix and maybe soon Apple. We’ll defend the image of a risk-prone festival, questioning the cinema, and we must be at the table every year.”

Part of this decision arose as an attempt to get Netflix to comply with the country's theater-protecting laws (known as the "media chronology law" or "statutory window"), as last year's selection of both The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Okja were an admitted ploy on Cannes' part to get Netflix to bend their release model to comply to its country's statutes. The fact that Meyerowitz and Okja even played Cannes '17 drew the ire of France’s theatrical exhibitors guild, who viewed the lauded festival’s programming decision as a slap in the face.

In a letter, the FNCF (National Federation of French Cinemas) accused Netflix of trying to circumvent French regulations, demanding that the streaming service release both selected movies in French theaters following their Cannes premieres. This obviously flies in the face of the foundation of Netflix’s business model, which is first and foremost to provide product for its global streaming audience, sans a theatrical window. Netflix sought to possibly compromise with French theater owners, by offering a day-and-date model that would allow the company to skirt past the 36-month ban to SVOD services that playing in one of the country's auditoriums would trigger. The whole thing ended in a stalemate of sorts, contributing to this year’s unfortunate fight.

So, beyond the greater philosophical debate that Fremaux also discusses regarding Cannes’ decision to bar Netlfix from competing – pondering whether the company's Originals even qualify as "cinema" in the first place due to their primary arena of exhibition being living rooms as opposed to theater screens (a position Steven Spielberg shares) – there are financial and regulatory elements at play. But now Netflix has responded to this new mandate (confirming rumors that they'd be pulling big name titles such as Alfonso Cuarón's Roma) by saying they're going to abstain from showcasing their Originals at this year's fest at all. It’s a veritable game of public one-upmanship, where two giants are trading blows over artistic and legal qualms.

If you'll allow me to repeat myself a bit, it's debatable whether this power play even matters to either Netflix or Cannes in the long run, aside from some tossed punches and insults. Netflix's appearance at any festival is little more than a contractual obligation, appeasing artists who've sold their pictures to the company with an entry into some of the world's most prestigious festivals, allowing them to compete for awards and be judged by critics just as their predecessors had. The streaming giant knows that the majority of their viewership doesn't care whether Roma played at Cannes or not, once the infamous algorithm forces the title to pop up in their customer base’s "recommendations".

In fact, a recent study found that Netflix’s booming slate of Originals is moving the needle, regardless of the fact licensed content generates 80% of US viewing. For the 12-month period ending September 2016, just 12% of US streams were Netflix originals — increasing to 20% in 2017. That’s one hell of a bump, making it questionable if Netflix’s content even needs Cannes (or any fest) at all, beyond an appeasement to the artists who produce it. 

On the flip side, outside of the regulatory issues, Cannes' barring of Netflix was little more than show for hardest core cinephiles, who engage in format debates until they're blue in the face. However, one person who is disturbed by Netflix’s decision is Beatrice Welles, daughter of the legendary Orson Welles. The late auteur's unfinished final film The Other Side of the Wind was finally completed and restored by the streaming service, only to have its French premiere pulled. In an email sent to Netflix executive Ted Sarandos, Ms. Welles said:

“I was very upset and troubled to read in the trade papers about the conflict with the Cannes Film Festival. I have to speak out for my father. I saw how the big production companies destroyed his life, his work, and in so doing a little bit of the man I loved so much. I would so hate to see Netflix be yet another one of these companies.”

Regardless of the repercussions (or lack thereof), one thing is clear: Cannes is being used as a PR battleground by studios who see the old guard showcase as little more than a launching pad for their wares (which can be just as easily disregarded as an act of dominant defiance). Disney is there to sell a product, gaining awareness and validity for their bloockbuster by having Cannes' name attached to it in some way. Meanwhile, the invectives being tossed by both the streaming service and Fremaux (on the fest's behalf) are the result of a culture shift one side is perpetuating, while the other clings to notions and ideals of the past, hoping that if they take a stand, progress will bend to its will. One look at a history book will tell you who usually wins and loses those battles, no matter the purity of the ethos in question.