Movies getting booed at Cannes is nothing new. It's a tradition. Something about the festival brings out the prickly jerk in mousy and gentle film critics. Even great movies have drawn jeers over the fest’s 70 years; what monster boos “L’Avventura,” “The Mother and the Whore,” “Taxi Driver” or “The Tree of Life”? But the catcalls happening this year are next-level. This morning “Okja,” the new freaky creature thriller from “Snowpiercer”’s Bong Joon-ho, premiered to deafening boos. But it wasn’t the film that awoke critics’ ire. It was its owners, Netflix.
The story begins well before the fest. Like Amazon Prime, Netflix has been buying up movies at festivals like Sundance for a while. But Amazon actually grants product like “Manchester by the Sea” a traditional theatrical release — and is rewarded with unexpectedly boffo box office. (Seriously, a sad mega-drama about a sad guy made almost double what “Zoolander 2” grossed.) Netflix does not do movie theaters, even when they spend major Hollywood studio money to make them themselves. That new Brad Pitt movie “War Machine,” which cost them $60 million? Straight to Netflix, right alongside the latest Adam Sandler movie, which won’t play googolplexes either.
This is depressing news to any serious or even slightly-more-than-casual filmgoer. It’s nice that Netflix is funding movies that audiences these days might flat-out ignore; right now the masses pretty much exclusively only go to multiplexes if it’s about superheroes or talking cartoon animals. (There are outlier money-gobblers, like "Hidden Figures" and "The Revenant" and "Get Out," but these are always seen by Hollywood as "exceptions that prove the rule.") Netflix even, as Bong himself as professed, give the filmmakers more control than big La La Land execs ever would.
Still, the no-theaters rule is a deal-breaker. Who wants a future where you have to watch anything that’s not either of those genres at home, on your sofa, by yourself? Seeing movies with total strangers can still be a magical experience, no matter what kind of movie. Even better: People who go to see dramas and satires and art house films don’t spend the movie dicking around with their smartphones.
The Cannes execs also aren’t fans of this brave new world. They allowed two Netflix movies to play in the elite competition roster this year: “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stores,” which amusingly also features Adam Sandler. (We love when he works for auteurs, and we don’t mean Dennis Dugan.) Then they had buyer’s remorse. They let Netflix’s anti-theater stance slide this time, but next year, if Netflix wants to bask in the glow of the world’s finest film festival, they’re going to have to promise to release their movies in honest-to-god movie theaters.
Cut to this morning, when “Okja” premiered. The boos were reportedly epic. But they also came way early. They started with the Netflix logo. (The day before critics also booed the Amazon Studios logo before Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” which will play theaters — showing that the hostility towards streaming giants runs deep.) Then they continued for another reason: The film was misprojected, the top section of the movie playing over the screen. It took seven long minutes for the projectionist to stop the movie, all while critics howled and raged. It took even longer to start the movie over properly. Once again the Netflix logo was booed, but things quickly settled down as they were bewitched by what sounds like a predictably delightful new Bong Joon-ho picture.
How rowdy will it get when the Netflix logo pops up before “The Meyerowitz Stories”? We’re guessing pretty rowdy. But we’re with them: We don’t want to watch the new Bong or the new Baumbach or “War Machine” on our expensive TVs or even (ye gods) our laptops or (holy crap) our phones. We don’t like a future where we only go to the theater when there’s battling comic book characters. Progress is good, but not always, and the theatrical experience is a tradition that should be kept up. And seeing a diverse array of movies in theaters should be available to more than people who live in cities rich with art house and repertory theaters, like New York and L.A. If all we see in theaters is explodey stuff, it leads to the dumbification of the culture at large. Resist. Boo.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge