Will Smith and Bong Joon-ho have both dismissed criticism of Netflix at the opening of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The event, now in its 70th year, is the first at which Netflix has premiered a movie, a sign of the changing times in the film industry. In fact, Netflix is premiering two titles: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. The streaming giant’s arrival on the Croissette, though, has been met with some backlash, thanks to Netflix’s clashing with French cinema rules about distribution: in France, the law states that if a film screens in French cinemas, it cannot be released online for three years. For Netflix, which aims to debut films simultaneously around the world for its 100-million-strong membership base, that rule drives it to bypass French cinemas altogether – a contrast to its push for theatrical releases in countries such as the UK (where Okja will be screened at Curzon cinemas) and the US.
With both Netflix titles contending for the Palme d’Or this year, Cannes has since responded by saying that any films only being released digitally in France will not be permitted In Competition at the festival.
The topic has sparked heated debate among cinephiles, with Pedro Almodóvar speaking out in support of the festival at the opening press conference for the jury. The Jury President told the press: “I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen.”
“All this doesn’t mean I’m not open, or don’t celebrate the new technology and the possibilities they offer to us,” he added. “But while I’m alive, I will be fighting for the one thing the new generation is not aware of – the capacity of hypnosis of a large screen for a viewer.”
The panel, which includes Jessica Chastain and Paolo Sorrentino, was largely silent on the issue, but Will Smith – a newcome to the event – was not afraid to fly his flag on the opposite side of the fence.
“I have a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old and a 24-year-old at home,” he commented. “They go to the movies twice a week, and they watch Netflix. In my home, Netflix has had absolutely no effect on what they go to the movie theater to watch.”
He praised the “great amount of connectivity” the subscription service offers, saying it has been “nothing but an absolutely benefit”.
“There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching what they watch on Netflix… [They] watch films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension.”
Smith, who stars in Netflix’s big-budget blockbuster Bright later this year, told Variety in an interview before the conference that being on the jury was a “huge opportunity”, joking of his upbringing that “West Philadelphia is a long way from Cannes”.
“I’m looking forward to being less dumb than when I arrived. I’m looking forward to slamming my hand on the table and saying, “I disagree!’ I’m looking forward to a jury scandal,” he quippted.
“I was probably 14 years old the last time I watched three movies in one day. Three movies a day is a lot! I’m going to be in bed every night, and I’m taking it very seriously. I will be watching wide-awake, focused to do my best.”
Bong Joon-ho, who directs Okja, also dismissed the criticism of Netflix in an interview with the trade publication.
He said the streaming service only imposed one restriction upon him, which was to shoot in 4K instead of 35mm.
“At first, Darius Khondji, my cinematographer, and I wanted to shoot Okja on 35mm, but Netflix insisted that all Netflix originals be shot and archived in 4K… Khondji then figured that we would use Alexa 65, which equates to a 70mm film in digital format. It makes a great cinematic vibe.”
“Netflix guaranteed my complete freedom in terms of putting together my team and the final cut privilege, which only godlike filmmakers such as Spielberg get,” he added.
Speaking of the theatrical release debate, he commented: “All films are eventually archived in DVDs, Blu-rays and in other digital media after screening in theaters for a while. Considering that as all films’ life cycle, I don’t think making a film backed by Netflix makes much difference for me as a filmmaker.”
Okja premieres at Cannes on Friday 19th May, before being released worldwide on Netflix on 28th June. Keep up to date with our reviews from Cannes here.