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Netflix’s Participation at the Berlin Film Festival Is Riling Up Cinema

The streaming giant has set its sights on prestige film festivals. But as the controversy surrounding its entry Elisa y Marcela prove, it’s going to be a bumpy road.

<em>Elisa y Marcela</em> film still (image courtesy Netflix)
Elisa y Marcela film still (image courtesy Netflix)

BERLIN — If European film festivals were a dinner party, Netflix would be that cousin no one really likes because he chews too loudly and keeps asking you what kind of car you’re driving now. But he keeps getting invited anyway because he’s got a case of Valserrano Rioja Crianza sitting at home and isn’t stingy with the sharing. And at the party known as the 69th edition of the Berlin Film Festival, Netflix is now getting people particularly riled up. The Berlinale, as the festival is called, is held every February and, along with other important European film festivals such as the Venice Film Festival and Cannes, have been touchy on the subject of Netflix and its entries into competitions.

At this year’s Berlinale, Netflix has two feature films playing. There’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which is not in the main competition and is BAFTA-award winner Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut. It’s a lovingly crafted portrait of William Kamkwamba, a Malawi teenager who in 2001 built a wind turbine that saved his village from a devastating drought. Then there’s Elisa y Marcela, whose debut on February 13 has been pursued by a fair amount of drama. Elisa y Marcela, directed by Isabel Coixet and produced by Netflix, is running in the “Competition” section, which means it’s eligible for awards. This has made it a target of a heated debate about nothing less than the future of cinema.

Elisa y Marcela press conference (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Elisa y Marcela press conference (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The reason? Cinema associations are concerned about the future of their industry if Netflix starts dominating in film festivals and poaching prominent talent — both arthouse and big studio names. That’s because Netflix films either don’t have a cinematic release date or are only shown in select cinemas for a brief amount of time. For cinemas in Germany, which announced “miserable ticket sales” in 2018, the fact that Netflix is bringing a prestige film to Berlin that doesn’t have an announced theatrical release in Germany (or anywhere else outside of Spain) is particularly galling.

Back in October, festival director Dieter Kosslick was already under pressure from various European cinema associations to ban Netflix from being eligible for any Berlinale awards. But by that point Netflix had already gotten a taste for award-season accolades. The streaming giant had just won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and organizations such as the National Association of Italian Filmmakers voiced their discontent. Cannes just went ahead and outright banned any films without a theatrical distribution from competition, thereby eliminating Netflix from competition.

The Germans followed the lead of the Italians: HDF Kino and AG-Kino, two large cinema associations, urged Kosslick to exclude Netflix from the competition. “It should be clear that we wouldn’t be pleased if Berlin were to be misused through day and date cinema,” HDF Kino’s CEO Thomas Negele told Deadline back in September, referring to a practice where a film is simultaneously released in cinemas and on streaming services.

And now Coixet’s film, a black-and-white drama of a lesbian couple in turn-of-the-century Spain, is in the running for the top prize. At the press conference opening the festival, Kosslick responded to Hyperallergic’s question about a Netflix entry in the competition by explaining that Netflix had met all the festival’s criteria for the awards category.

“Film festivals are supposed to be for films that will be shown in cinemas. And we champion that, and we will continue to champion that. We are first and foremost here for cinema,” he said. “And our rules are as follows: In the Competition [category], we will only show films that are suitable for the cinema. And in this case, we got written assurance that this film, Elisa y Marcela, will have a theatrical release in Spain. That is enough for us to place this film in the Competition. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have placed it in the Competition.”

But two days before the film’s world premier, the plot thickened. Around 180 independent cinema owners, represented by AG-Kino, sent an open letter to Kosslick and Monika Grütters, the state culture minister, demanding that Coixet’s film be withdrawn from the competition.

“The Berlinale stands for the large screen, Netflix for the small one,” the letter stated. It also claimed that Netflix didn’t intend to grant the film a “regular theatrical release,” and that the company wanted “to force a reinterpretation of the term ‘theatrical release’ through pure economic power and for the sake of its own core capitalist business model.” Basically, they’re claiming that Netflix is doing the bare minimum in terms of theatrical release stipulations in order to still be eligible for awards.

Felix Bruder, the director of AG-Kino, explained that “a regular release window is 112 days,” referring to the length of time a film plays in cinemas. Bruder said that Netflix hadn’t published information regarding the length of time Elisa y Marcela would play in Spanish cinemas, but added that the streaming giant has said “that its customers come first, so we’re very skeptical about there being a regular release window.” Then there’s the fact that cinemas outside of Spain are missing out on featuring a potential festival winner. Netflix was not available for comment at the moment of publication.

Isabel Coixet (image courtesy Netflix)
Isabel Coixet (photo by Isabel Coixet)

At the press conference after the premiere of Elisa y Marcela, Coixet herself had some choice words regarding the demand to withdraw her film from the Competition. “I understand their reasons,” she said, referring to the signers of the open letter. “But I don’t think it’s fair to take out the film from the Competition.”

For her, the demands “really hurt,” and they reveal “an actual lack of respect for the festival, for films, for the work that’s been done by my actors, by everybody,” she said. “Above all, there’s a supposition behind it, as if we were some kind of mafia; that we were trying to trick people, that we were trying to smuggle our film in somehow.” She mentioned that she struggled to find financing for the film for 10 years, and that when the project was finally presented to Netflix they enthusiastically jumped on board.

Kosslick maintains that “Elisa y Marcela is and will stay in the Competition,” since a cinematic release is planned for Spain. He did add that “for the future, festivals will have to think about how to deal with this question of the cinematic release window.” Coixet echoed the need for a solution when she remarked that “this coexistence, this cohabitation [between cinemas and streaming services] will have to work somehow. It’s essential.”

It certainly would seem so, since Netflix (and other streaming competitors like Amazon) are not going to go away anytime soon. Netflix’s economic strength means it’s able to easily attract world-class talent, which in turn means it’ll be able to rack up more awards. On the one hand, it does mean, on the whole, important, beautiful films and those who make them automatically get a wider audience. On the other hand, the concerns of cinema associations and cinema owners is real, as is the fear that prestigious film festivals will be misused as marketing opportunities by these giant businesses. A solution has yet to be found, but one thing, as Kosslick commented during the opening of the festival, is certain: “The world has changed.”

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