Struggling Film Industry Needs Cannes for the Deals, Not Glitz

It may be the world’s most glamorous movie event, but what happens behind the scenes at the Cannes Film Festival matters more.

The red-carpet rituals and the battle for the 18-carat Palme D’Or trophy are a sideshow for most of the 40,000 delegates who typically descend upon the Mediterranean town. They’re in it for serious business -- closing distribution deals between screenings and cajoling commissioners to sign the checks that keep the industry’s patchwork of production firms alive.

So organizers are under heavy pressure to honor a pledge to hold the gathering in July, even as host France grapples with another coronavirus surge and the death toll creeps higher following a botched start to its vaccination campaign.

Struggling Film Industry Needs Cannes for the Deals, Not Glitz

Film investment in France slumped by 30% last year and industry figures have lambasted the government for keeping theaters shut while shops were allowed to reopen. The closures have left Eric Lagesse, chief executive officer of distributor Pyramide Films, with over 300 titles sitting unwatched on the shelf.

The last full Cannes festival was held in May 2019, and Lagesse now has 12 movies waiting to be submitted. He said he’s more likely to get deals for the type of arthouse films that are his specialty if he meets people face to face. The longer he waits, the harder it becomes to sell them.

“When you have older movies that couldn’t be released -- that’s complicated,” said Lagesse. “It’s tough for the filmmakers, some of whom have been waiting for over a year.”

Festival organizers are holding virtual film screenings two weeks before the main event, to help the industry strike some early deals. “We’re doing everything we can to be flexible, because we understand that people might not be able to make decisions until closer to the July dates,” the market’s Executive Director Jerome Paillard told Bloomberg.

The real-life festival is still “vital” to Paul Ridd, acquisitions manager at Picturehouse Entertainment, owned by the world’s second-largest cinema chain, Cineworld. When the Picturehouse team picked up Małgorzata Szumowska’s “Never Gonna Snow Again” at the Venice Film Festival last September, it was partly because they could be there in person.

“This is precisely what physical festivals bring to the table -- exciting films and the full, proper conditions in which to decide to take risks on bold new work,” said Ridd.

Veteran industry executive Daniel Battsek, the director of Film4, managed to sell Rebecca Hall’s debut feature “Passing” -- a critical success starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga -- to Netflix at the virtual Sundance Film Festival this year. Yet for Battsek, online markets come up short on atmosphere and the shared experience, and make it harder to scout for emerging talent.

“I yearn for a return to in-person festivals and Cannes almost above all because of the sheer spectacle of it and the profile it creates for films and film making around the world,” he said.

Vaccination Center

Cannes has run with various interruptions since 1939 when it was launched as a rival to the Venice film festival that had become a vehicle for fascist and Nazi propaganda. Today it brings more than 120,000 visitors to the Mediterranean city of 74,000 inhabitants, including 13,000 producers, directors and distributors, and 4,500 journalists -- making it one of the world’s biggest media events after the Olympics.

Struggling Film Industry Needs Cannes for the Deals, Not Glitz

The event that helped to launch the careers of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh has lost none of its importance in the Netflix era. Before shooting began on Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama “The Irishman,” STX nabbed the distribution rights for $50 million at a poolside party in Cannes after a bidding war, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The film eventually landed at Netflix, and went on to secure 10 Oscar nominations. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” won the Palme D’Or in 2019, propelling it to critical success and box office revenue of more than $250 million. It later became the first non-English language film to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Right now the cavernous Palais des Festivals et des Congres is home to a Covid vaccination center after last year doubling as a shelter for the homeless during the pandemic.

Paillard said this year’s festival will still require mask-wearing and social distancing. It’s not clear when normal life will return, with the country in the midst of another lockdown and the government favoring a cautious, gradual easing of restrictions. It plans to lift curbs on domestic travel on May 3 and reopen some cafe and restaurant terraces from mid-May, but has no plan to remove a 7 p.m. curfew.

Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer Peter Kaufman said Cannes should be scrapped this year and the industry can manage its business online for now.

“I just think the south of France in July of 2021 could be a morally irresponsible thing to do. It creates a layer of anxiety that’s unnecessary,” he said.

Cannes Highs and Lows

1939 - First Cannes festival shuts after one screening as World War II begins
1953 - Brigitte Bardot introduces the bikini to a wider audience at Cannes
1955 - Grace Kelly meets Prince Rainier of Monaco
1968 - A group of directors interrupts screenings in solidarity with striking French workers and students
1994 - Quentin Tarantino gives the finger to an audience member who heckles him after he wins the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction
2011 - Danish director Lars von Trier causes a storm at Cannes when he says he “understands” Adolf Hitler and “I sympathize with him a little bit”
2018 - Festival director Thierry Fremaux bans selfies on the red carpet, saying they “tarnish the quality” of the festival
2020 - Festival scaled back to a smaller October “special” with a handful of films and far less press coverage
2021 - The 74th Cannes is set for July 6-17, opening with Leos Carax’s “Annette” and with Spike Lee as President of the Jury

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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