Every new invention the world saw had run into roadblocks. People hated the steam engine when it first chugged in, and called it a black, smoke-belching monster. When television first made its way into the living room, cinemas were nervous. But the two have now learnt to live together, and theatres as well as viewers have understood that the small screen can never give the kind of pleasure a large screen can.
It is now the turn of streaming giants, like Netflix and Amazon, to lock horns with cinemas, and this battle took an ugly turn at Cannes last May, when the Festival supremo, Thierry Fremaux, had to backtrack in the face of stiff opposition from the powerful distributor/exhibitor lobby in France. They said that organisations like Netflix and Amazon could not stream their Cannes films before releasing them in theatres. Netflix and Amazon refused to do that, and Fremaux had to drop those movies, which, though, did find a platform in Venice, which ended on September 9. Since Italy does not have a cinema lobby as powerful as that in France, Venice could screen the films produced by Netflix and Amazon without much of a hassle.
But post Venice, the issue seems to have risen again, the Golden Lion victory for the Netflix original, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, having precipitated the latest outburst. Italian distributors and exhibitors are angry that the Venice Film Festival is being used as a promotional tool for the streamers. In fact, the big win is being viewed as a plus point for Netflix, not for theatres.
Roma was the first major European award for Netflix in the feature film category. The streamer also picked up a prize for screenwriting in Venice: Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
A harsh statement from the Italian National Association of Film Authors (which represents directors and screenwriters) and the Italian Federation of Cinema of Essai and the Catholic Cinema Exhibitors Association said that “it was unfair that the Biennale (Venice) brand is a marketing vehicle for the Netflix platform."
The statement argued that while it hailed the Guillermo Del Toro jury verdict to honour Roma with the top Golden Lion, the decision was setting a precedent and would work against the interests of the Italian and European cinemas – which were facing a crisis now.
"The Golden Lion, a symbol of the International Film Festival, which has always been financed with public resources is a patrimony of Italian spectators; the movie that bears its name should be within everyone's reach, in cinemas, and not exclusively for the subscribers of the American platform," read the statement.
The organisations urged the Venice Film Festival Director, Alberto Barbera, to reexamine his decision for the 76th edition next year.
The battle lines are now drawn clear. Not just in Europe, but all over the world. Some years ago, when Indian actor/director Kamal Haasan wanted to release his Viswaroopam simultaneously in the cinemas and in the Direct-to-Home platform, there was a huge hue and cry, and he could not do it.
But the undeniable fact is that majors like Netflix and Amazon have made it very easy for movie men to produce a film. The funding is liberal, and in a country like India, there is no censorship issue. Otherwise, do you think a web series like Sacred Games could have ever passed through the censor board without being mauled?
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Cannes Film Festival for over 15 years)