The Cannes Film Festival has never had a juror quite like Will Smith, who strode into the Palais to roars of applause that brought to mind the premiere of one of his action movies (think MIB in Paris).
The star of such popcorn hits as Independence Day, Bad Boys, and Suicide Squad had the crowd of journalists so captivated at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, he didn’t leave much speaking time for his fellow jurors — like Jessica Chastain or a totally silent Paolo Sorrentino. Even the Cannes jury president, director Pedro Almodovar, had to succumb to the Will Smith show, admitting he’d always wanted to work with the movie star.
“When I first got the call, I was really excited,” Smith said, recounting the back-and-forth between him and his publicist with dramatic flair. “I was probably 14 years old the last time I watched three movies in one day. Three movies a day is a lot!” He stressed the unforeseen challenges that might arise from all those 8:30 a.m. screenings, sounding like a college freshman unsure if he’ll sleep through his alarm. “I’m going to be in bed every night, and I’m taking it very seriously,” Smith said. “I will be watching wide-awake, focused to do my best.”
He cracked jokes about his upbringing away from independent cinema. “West Philadelphia is a long way from Cannes,” he said. When a reporter noted that ex-juror Kirsten Dunst donned 28 outfits on last year’s red carpets, Smith had the jokes ready. “I’ll be going for 32,” he said, admitting the warm weather threw a wrench in his black-tie plans. “I wanted to be South of France Cannes sexy, but all that went out the window.”
There was a serious note in the heart of the conversation when Almodovar, wearing dark sunglasses, read from a lengthy pre-written statement in Spanish. The Oscar-winning Talk to Her director spoke of tensions that have grown in a film industry that’s trying to grapple with new players like Netflix that don’t always premiere movies in theaters. French distributors have protested that two of this year’s in-competition titles, Netflix’s Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, didn’t until recently have a theatrical release in France. Almodovar made it clear which side of the debate he stood on.
“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,” Almodovar said. “All this doesn’t mean I’m not open to or don’t celebrate the new technologies. I do.”
“I’ll be fighting for one thing that I’m afraid the new generation is not aware of,” he added. “It’s the capacity of the hypnosis of the large screen for the viewer.” He said he wanted everybody to witness a movie for the first time in a theater. “The size [of the screen] should not be smaller than the chair on which you’re sitting. It should not be part of your everyday setting. You must feel small and humble in front of the image that’s here.”
That seemed to be the last word — until Smith chimed in a few minutes later, launching into a defense of Netflix, as it related to the viewing habits of his three kids. “They go to the movies twice a week and they watch Netflix,” Smith said. “There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching what they watch on Netflix in my home.”
Netflix, it just so happens, is the distributor of Smith’s next movie, the big-budget Bright, which opens this year.
“In my house, Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit,” Smith said. “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.”
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