CANNES, France – The 70th Cannes Film Festival opened Wednesday under sunny Cote D’Azur skies and the high-wattage smiles of stars including Will Smith and Marion Cotillard. But a brewing storm over Netflix’s place at the world’s most prestigious film festival continued to steal the spotlight as Cannes rolled out the red carpet.
Optimism is high at this year’s Cannes, which features a lineup widely considered to be well-stocked with heavyweight filmmakers, including Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”), Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”), Michael Haneke (“Happy End”) and Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”). But rancor and controversy have characterized the preamble to Cannes, as well as its opening day.
For the first time, Cannes selected two Netflix releases — Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” — for its Palme d’Or competition. French theaters, which have strict rules regarding streaming service films, rebelled at the thought of a movie that won’t play on the big screen winning the Palme d’Or — the biggest award in film next to an Oscar, and to some, even more important. The festival relented and next year won’t accept streaming-only films.
On Wednesday, Pedro Almodóvar, who’s presiding over this year’s competition jury, read a lengthy statement in which he said: “I personally do not conceive, not only the Palme d’Or, any other prize being given to a film and not being able to see this film on a big screen.”
The comment was striking coming from the head of the jury that will decide the award, potentially meaning that the Joon-ho and Baumbach films are already out of luck. But Almodóvar, a Cannes regular, drew applause for his defense of the theatrical experience, which he said he’ll fight for “as long as I’m alive.”
“The size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair you’re sitting in. It should not be part of your everyday setting,” said the Spanish filmmaker. “You must be small and humble in front of the image that’s here.”
But Smith, a member of the jury that also includes Jessica Chastain, Paolo Sorrentino and Park Chan-wook, stuck up for Netflix. Later this year, Netflix will debut one of its biggest budget films yet, the $90 million fantasy thriller “Bright,” in which Smith stars.
“In my house, Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit,” Smith said of his children’s viewing habits. “They get to see films they absolutely wouldn’t have seen. Netflix brings a great connectivity. There are movies that are not on a screen within 8,000 miles of them. They get to find those artists.”
Smith, who has not had a film play at Cannes before, was dapperly dressed and cheerfully posing with festival-goers who screamed “Will! Will!” ”West Philadelphia is a long way from Cannes,” joked an enthusiastic Smith, referring to his hometown.
Security was greater than ever at the French festival, which has stepped up efforts to restrict access, added more metal detectors and even introduced an anti-drone system. France remains under a state of emergency since the November 2015 Paris attacks. This is also the first festival held since the nearby Nice attack last year that killed 86 people.
Festival organizers have said everything has been done to maintain a balance of safety and the celebratory atmosphere of the world’s most prestigious film festival. On Wednesday, the heightened measures were already causing something unthinkable at the stringently clockwork Cannes: slight delays at screenings and press conferences.
“Since Sept. 11, Cannes has … maximized security measures,” festival director Thierry Frémaux said in an interview. “You’re in a country which has got a lot of terrorist attacks. Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Nice, one year ago. So we need to pay attention.”
Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” with Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Cotillard, was the opening-night film. Critics, while praising some of the performances, weren’t enamored with Desplechin’s farcical, self-referential drama about a filmmaker visited by a long missing ex-wife.
The Cannes Film Festival runs through May 28, when the Palme d’Or winner and other awards will be announced.