Netflix CEO addresses Cannes controversy: ‘Sometimes the establishment is clumsy’

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Interviewed by reporter Peter Kafka at Recode’s Code Conference today, Reed Hastings addressed recent months’ controversy around Netflix competing at the Cannes Film Festival.

Given Netflix’s refusal to release its competition films — Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories — in French theaters, the French film industry’s governing body threw its weight around a bit, prompting Cannes to disqualify streaming-only films in future years. Many reports from the festival suggested that the tension was ongoing — including tweets about Okja’s Netflix title card being booed, as well as the films’ stars and creative team (and totally unrelated industry peers) weighing in on the drama.

Asked to explain what happened, Hastings told Kafka that the National Federation of French Cinemas has “roughly half” of the board seats at Cannes. “They got the festival director to threaten to pull us out, which got a bunch of press. He kept us in because artistic integrity should be the trumping principle. It was very messy … Sometimes the establishment is clumsy when it tries to shut out the insurgent, and then the insurgent’s role is to play that up, which we did.”

Hastings clarified that he doesn’t believe Netflix “picked” a fight with Cannes, but the controversy worked out as free press for the two films, which “got it on their own, on artistic merit.”

Says Hastings: “We don’t really want to fight with anyone… [When] someone picks a fight with us, it brings [us] attention, [and] it’s fantastic for us. Most importantly it’s fantastic for Okja and Meyerowitz Stories… they’ll get a lot more awareness.”

The conversation at Code Conference centered on Netflix’s work making original films, with Kafka also asking about how the strategy differs from that for Netflix’s many original TV series. Hastings was reluctant to answer, saying, “You’re drawing a firm line between them and we look at them more fluidly.” It’s an interesting response, given the frequent criticism that some of Netflix’s original series are just overly long movies, drawn out for little reason.

Pointing out that Netflix’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was acknowledged as a failure in its latest investor letter, Kafka prompted Hastings to concede that Netflix is, if not struggling with the new venture, at least having a harder time than it did with TV: “I don’t know that movies are that much harder, we just had chosen first to do serialized entertainment because you get into a show and you get excited and addicted about it and binge-viewing is a very novel thing that we pioneered. There’s no movie equivalent.”

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The interview briefly addressed Netflix’s few original series cancelations (Hastings mentions only Marco Polo and The Get Down, tragically forgetting the always-forgotten Bloodline), and Hastings brushed off Kafka’s suggestion that these were big, embarrassing failed bets: “They were a small percentage, like 1 percent of the total budget for original content. So they’re big in absolute dollars, no question, but not as a percentage.” He continued, adding, “If anything, what I push our content team on is you should have more things that don’t work out. You gotta get more aggressive. The drive towards conformity as you grow as a company is very substantial.”

Hastings also discussed net neutrality, which he says is no longer a political priority for Netflix, and theatrical distribution of film (as a general concept), which he sees living side by side with streaming releases. An audience member asked him what a Netflix movie theater would look like and he said “a 60-inch OLED 4K TV in your living room.”

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