Netflix is both a haven and a trap for Indian filmmakers who have always been tempted by Cannes and international exposure. Tempted, and frustrated.
By Pierre Assouline
Indian filmmakers have been totally ignored the past 25 years by Cannes’ Official Competition. Thus, their dilemma of ‘should I go with Netflix and loose out the possible Cannes boost’, is minor compared to filmmakers from countries with cultures better understood by Thierry Frémaux, the Festival General Delegate. His despising sarcastic reply to a Kolkata journalist asking why year after year India was missing from the Competition is hard to forget: “India? What am I supposed to answer? Perhaps that it is a great Cinema country?”.
Evoking the Un Certain Regard section, Frémaux stated: “The eye on India would focus on ‘New Gen’ films rather than offerings from Bollywood or Bengali cinema”. His comment lumping together Bollywood and Bengali films reveals that he is hardly aware of Indian Cinema,what to speak of Indian Culture. Setting ‘New Gen’ against Bengali Cinema shows he is in a time warp, still stuck in the Ray era. Aren’t Rituparno Ghosh, Kaushik Ganguly, or Qaushiq Mukherjee (Q) Bengali? How to categorize their films if not ‘New Gen’? Qaushiq Mukherjee’s (Q) cinema is even ‘New Gen’ within the ‘New Gen’.
Long-gone are the days of the charismatic Gilles Jacob who selected Shaji Karun’s Swaham in Competition and Vanaprastham in Official Selection.
Although the politically correct 2019 press conference boasts “a balanced selection with the right assortment of stalwarts and newcomers”, the truth is that young directors are mostly considered only after securing all possible seats for “Cannes’ Directors Club members”, or, as Frémaux himself refers to them, the “Subscription Holders”: Ken Loach (returning for the 14th time!), the Dardenne brothers, Jim Jarmush, Marco Bellocchio, Arnaud Desplechin, Pedro Almodóvar, et al.
The danger is a declining Cannes Film Festival every year more detached from contemporary realities.
In 2017, Thierry Frémaux was proudly speaking about his selection of Okja- fully produced by Netflix. At that time, he never expressed the opinion that a film is not a film if not shown on the big screen. Quite the opposite. He stated: “Netflix or not Netflix, Okja is a Cinema film, a Cinema product. Bong Joon-ho is a great contemporary director. He shows us a film, we like the film, we take the film.”
In 2018, Frémaux sang a different tune. He excluded the Netflix film to which it is the hardest to deny the quality and title of Cinema: Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron. Why the one-eighty? The pressure of French film industry heavyweights, the very ones he owes his seat to? Not only.That exclusion reveals a Cannes’ rising awareness that Netflix is a threat to the very sustainability of its conservative model.
Far from being merely technical,the disagreement is not about the sacrosanct chronology of media in France which forbids an OTT platform to stream a film before 17 months following a theatrical release(hence Netflix’s refusal to allow any French theatrical exhibition for its productions). The rivalry is really all about both parties’ stubbornness to stand by their respective vision of what Cinema is.
Filmmakers find themselves hostages of this power struggle. The situation of “The other Side of the Wind”,an unfinished film by Orson Welles is a case in point. After decades of knocking at studios’ doors, Welles’ daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith, could still not complete the film. Finally, Netflix came to the rescue for full financing. But Netflix failed to back her dream of seeing her father being honored at Cannes for the final curtain of his cinematic career. Netflix, and not Cannes which has indeed proposed a special screening Out of Competition in Official Selection. Netflix turned down the offer, thus revealing a higher concern for the enforcement of the Netflix model rather than for any one of the titles it has funded.
Filmmakers never asked for a confrontation between the world’s largest Film Festival and the OTT giant. Their interest is not to have to choose. They want and may deserve both.
Netflix may not bestow Indian filmmakers’ work the glamour and prestige that Cannes has specialized in over the years (when not turned into a pitiless crushing machine), but they and other major OTTs make films available to millions. For the first time in history, Indian Cinema is being watched by a majority of non-diaspora global audience.
To indulge in a ‘The Fox and the Grapes’ attitude of “What cannot be had, you speak of badly” plays into the “us and they” mentality that is stifling the Cannes Festival at present. Cannes still has unique benefits. To belittle it as a relic of a past that is out of sync with the way cinema is watched today cannot be honest. Why then wouldn’t Indian filmmakers consider Netflix as a possible stepping-stone for a future Cannes-eligible feature film?
Even if series like Sacred Games (2 non-Indian viewers out of 3) surpass by far the D2C international capacity of feature films (an evaluation based on acquisitions and not yet on Originals), Indian feature filmmakers should grab the opportunity of content-thirsty Netflix and other competitive global or domestic OTT platforms. While at it, they can incidentally relish the creative freedom of swapping Kafkaesque CBFC whims for non-restrictive OTTs Best Practices code.
Cannes? Worry about it later.
Pierre Assouline, a producer in France and India with Selections and Awards including Competition in Venice, Competition and Jury Award in Locarno, Competition in Toronto, Official Selection in Cannes, National Award in India, Pierre Assouline currently works at establishing “The Uplifting Cinema Project”, a production slate of universal and uplifting films conveying India’s beauty to the world.