Leonard Bernstein, Enzo Ferrari, Jon Batiste, Bayard Rustin and Diana Nyad have little in common other than being the subjects of films dominating the awards season conversations — and that French audiences will not get to see them in cinemas.

Maestro, American Symphony, Rustin, Nyad, Society Of The Snow, Leave The World Behind and The Killerare only available on Netflix in France. Air, Saltburn, The Burial and local acquisition Ferrari are Prime Video-­only releases in the country.

Awards season contenders that are getting play in French cinemas will not be available to watch at home for several months, such as Sony’s Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix, and Paramount’s Martin Scorsese epic Killers Of The Flower Moon. Both were released in French cinemas this autumn and will head to Apple TV+ in 17 months; Disney’s animated feature Wish, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Venice winner Poor Things starring Emma Stone, and Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders will all go on to stream on Disney+ in 17 months.

Todd Haynes’ melodrama May December, starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore — a Netflix acquisition in North America but not in France — will be released theatrically in the territory in January via ARP Sélection so will have to wait before its next broadcasting window which, for now, is still up for grabs in the country.

Outside France, the streamers are experimenting with limited theatrical releases worldwide for awards season hopefuls, but such flexibility remains impossible in France due to the country’s long-revered ecosystem of film financing that depends on strict windowing regulations.

The system was overhauled in January 2022, with a landmark pact valid through 2025. It dictates that once a film finishes its theatrical release in French cinemas, it can be offered for sale or rental four months later, air on Canal+ or OCS six months later, on Netflix after 15 months and other streamers after 17 months, then after 22 months on free-to-air broadcasters such as TF1, France Télévisions and M6.

Disney responded to the windowing rules by opting to release Strange World directly on Disney+ in 2022, bypassing theatres altogether and raising fears this might be the studio’s defacto strategy going forward. But 2024 titles such as Deadpool 3, Mufasa: The Lion King and The Amateur all have theatrical release dates in France.

Meanwhile, Cannes Film Festival, a longtime launchpad for awards season (the 2023 festival premiered both Anatomy Of A Fall and Killers Of The Flower Moon), remains off limits for direct-to-­platform films from streamers that seek Palme d’Or glory — titles playing in the festival’s Competition section must be released theatrically in France. (Notably, Netflix gave a rare theatrical screening to JA Bayona’s Society Of The Snow at Lumière Festival in Lyon in October, run by Cannes’ dele­gate general Thierry Frémaux.)

Prime Video recently signed on as a co-producer for its first French original set to play cinemas, Ken Scott’s Ma Mère, Dieu Et Sylvie Vartan. Gaumont, which produces with Egérie Productions, will release the film in theatres before it heads to Prime Video France some 17 months later.

Theatrical gamble

Further evolution of the chronology is inevitable if not immediately imminent. France’s culture minister Rima Abdul Malak said in May 2023 that while “it is now time to move the windows a little bit — they could be shorter,” she specified that “we need to go step by step” and cited France’s “very specific system [that] we need to preserve”.

Until the laws are changed, streamers such as Prime Video and Net­flix will continue to skip theatrical releases in favour of a direct-to-platform strategy. Apple is experimenting with a parallel release approach, so far opting to send Fingernails straight to Apple TV+ but seeing successful launches for Killers Of The Flower Moon (1.26 million tickets since its October 18 launch) and Napoleon (nearly 1.37 million since its November 22 release).

Marc-Olivier Sebbag, executive director of France’s National Cinema Federation (FNCF), suggests that even if the films will now have to wait more than a year to stream on Apple TV+, “the bet paid off”.

“Our French system allowed us to resist the effects of the pandemic better than other countries, so it’s important we maintain it,” he adds.

As US platforms Paramount+ and Warner Bros Discovery’s Max enter the streaming fray, French broad­casters are stepping up their game to compete for subscribers and coveted first or second post-­theatrical slots in the media chronology. TF1 is launching TF1+, a free, ad-­supported streaming platform that will go live in January, and, says Manuel Alduy, head of cinema at public broadcaster France Télévisions, “Our priority is France.tv Replay.” However, he adds, “We’re not chasing after recency.” Unlike pay-TV powerhouse Canal+, which most certainly is.

Canal+ is leveraging its advantage in the media chronology with blockbuster-­centred Canal+ Box Office and the more auteur, festival-­driven Canal+ Cinéma(s). Many awards season contenders will head to the pay-TV giant’s myriad channels, including Oppenheimer, The Color Purple, The Holdovers, Poor Things and All Of Us Strangers.

Homegrown awards contenders Anatomy Of A Fall and The Taste Of Things will make a first stop on Canal+ before heading to France Télévisions.

Talks to renegotiate the terms of the chronology are expected to start in early 2024 according to whispers among the concerned parties. The challenge on all sides will be to strike a balance between catching up to a rapidly evolving global entertainment landscape and assuring France’s long-intact, self-nourishing film infrastructure does not crumble.

Alduy points to the widening gap between colossal box-office failures and blockbuster hits. “The industry is more unstable than before, so a media chronology with no flexibility is not so simple, but it has systemic virtues,” he says, noting the delicate balance the French industry is working hard to maintain.

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