Chronology: A very complex equation
by Fabien Lemercier
- The discontent of French exhibitors upon the announcement of the selection of two Netflix films in competition at Cannes reawakens the heated debate on chronology
By selecting two films funded by Netflix (Okja by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and The Meyerowitz Stories by American director Noah Baumbach) among the competitors for the Palme d’Or at the 70th Cannes Film Festival (being held from 17 to 28 May), General Delegate Thierry Frémaux has incurred a hostile reaction from the National Federation of French Cinema (FNCF), rekindling a recurring and as of yet unresolved debate in France on a potential reform of the chronology of the media (spacing out the dedicated windows for broadcasting works on different supports, starting with cinemas).
According to the FNCF, "Whilst cinemas are not calling the freedom of programming of the biggest festival in the world into question, or the fact that new international stakeholders, such as Amazon, are starting to contribute to the development and funding of films, they do challenge this decision". Their biggest fear? That Netflix films aren’t released in theatres, which in principle shouldn’t happen, as an arrangement is currently in the pipeline modelled on what happened for the three films purchased by Netflix last year in the Croisette (see interview with Frédéric Dubreuil). On the other hand, it’s clear that the hegemonic intentions openly demonstrated by Netflix to completely replace theatres in the future really do annoy exhibitors, all the more so as the American platform is exempt from French regulations, particularly tax regulations, and does not contribute to the well-oiled French funding of works system.
But this episode has the merit of bringing the question of a possible reform of the chronology of the media in France back to the fore. The unresolved issue of the last decade, the multiple rounds of professional negotiations that have taken place on the subject have dragged on and on without conclusion, for two main reasons. The first is a corporate one. Practically every segment of the sector defends its position with a doggedness that fuels this stasis, with exhibitors having notably erected a sort of Berlin Wall ("we won’t change a winning system") on the basis of the apparently excellent state of health of admissions in theatres in France and the solid part of the market held by national films, whilst it is clear that some films do not get the screening in theatres that they deserve (and others are super exposed, with results that aren’t always all that convincing...). As for TV channels, in particular pay-TV channels, which remain the backbone of the virtuous French funding of works system, but are notably suffering from a dwindling popularity of films before they can even be broadcast, their demands for windows to be brought forward (Canal+ would like, for example, to have its window six instead of 10 months after the release of a work in theatres) clash with the diverse and varied conditions demanded in exchange by some associations of producers and directors (the SRF, UPC and SPI, among others, would like access to films via video-on-demand, currently available four months after the release in theatres, to no longer be blocked during Canal’s window). Turning to the distributors, they waver between the desire to have films released in theatres and "day-and-date" video-on-demand, and the desire to defend theatres as a place for showcasing films (possibly through geolocalised video-on-demand).
Beyond the defence of corporate interests, negotiations are also being completely bogged down by the sophistication of the French model, with the possibility of any changes causing a domino effect. But the world of film has evolved rapidly in recent times, especially with "pirate streaming" which has become an unfortunately everyday way of watching films (a phenomenon thinly disguised by the fact that French pirates also go to see films in theatres), which is clearly blocking the growth of legal video-on-demand. And that’s without even mentioning the availability of films on subscription video-on-demand services 36 months after their release in theatres, a completely absurd amount of time in modern times which nonetheless endures, and is logical as a way of safeguarding the exclusivity agreements of the various TV channels that help to fund films. In short, it’s not a simple issue, and the CNC has regularly come up with proposals for adjustments, with discussions tirelessly coming back to that one issue that keeps rearing its ugly head. Will the Cannes-Netflix affair have other consequences than simply setting a cat amongst the pigeons? Nothing could be less certain, given the complexity of the issue, but it has at least turned the spotlight on an issue in which small symbolic efforts already mark a significant collective step forward where diverging interests make any more ambitious agreement impossible for the moment (an agreement it is perhaps time to start thinking about seriously at the risk of running into economic constraints within the space of a few years).
(Translated from French)