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On Trying to Work in the Name of a Festival Sponsor (Without Compromising One’s Journalistic Integrity)

On Trying to Work in the Name of a Festival Sponsor (Without Compromising One's Journalistic Integrity)

Since I was a teenager, I’ve wondered why Coke and Pepsi
still have to advertise. Is there anyone who knows what a carbonated beverage
is who isn’t already aware of these two iconic brands of cola? How hard is it
to taste both and decide if a personal preference emerges or that either (or
neither) one will do?

When I sailed on a shipboard college called World Campus
Afloat back in 1973, the one thing that could be relied upon when our vessel docked
most anywhere in Asia or the South Pacific was that entrepreneurial youngsters
would greet us with cola drinks, on the universal assumption that Americans run
on the stuff the way (most) cars run on gasoline.

And yet, apparently, if Coke or Pepsi cut back on their
advertising, sales do, in fact, go down.

What does this have to do with cinema or the recently ended
66th Cannes Film Festival?

It so happens that a wine company that makes very tasty
(that’s a technical oenophile term) wine and has done so for some time is an
official sponsor of the Cannes Film Festival. I imagine it would be difficult
to find anybody with taste buds who doesn’t agree that, grapes and climate
willing, they make an excellent product.

In conjunction with their status as the official wine
purveyor of the Festival for over 20 years, they run a cozy penthouse with
lovely views atop the roof of the Palais des Festivals.  It is used for junkets and intimate meals and
jury-related relaxation out of the spotlight. It serves a purpose in addition
to serving libations in honor of the gods of cinema.

Before the Festival got underway, the publicist in charge of
the area this year wanted to know whether I might be able to highlight the
company’s very nice rooftop oasis in some manner.

As a recipient of public funding, the French television
station I work for is not permitted to cite brand names.

I really didn’t see a way to casually shoehorn in a mention.
If my drawing board had fit in my Cannes-bound luggage, I’d have gone back to
it.

As it turns out, at 6 p.m.on May 25th, the day before the
awards were announced, the publicist invited me to trek up to the roof for a
drink.  Stemware in hand, I enjoyed a
consistently interesting conversation with 
Géraud de la Noue who is managing director of Baron Philippe de
Rothschild France Distribution. (Admit it, those are very nice-sounding names.
You can understand why Lars Trier added the “von.”)

But we weren’t speaking about wine.  We were speaking about how the
English-language trades have cut back on the number of films they review and
how nowadays talented but as-yet-unknown people may not get written up for lack
of space and/or budget. I mentioned that when I used to write for an American
trade that rhymes with “sobriety” I had reviewed a 1997 French first
film co-starring the then-unknown Guillaume Canet in his first big-screen role.
Although that movie sold the box office equivalent of a handful of tickets in
all of France, I pegged Canet as a talent to watch and the publication trusted
my judgement.

Sixteen years later, unless that film were part of the
line-up at a prominent festival, it probably wouldn’t get written about at all.

When I’ve had occasion to give that example, nobody has ever
known what film I’m taking about. But Mr. De la Noue immediately said, “I
saw that film! At a preview. It was horrifically violent. And you’re right —
it may have lasted all of a week in theaters. What was it called? Something
with ‘moon’ in the title?”

There we were, the publicist for the Mouton Cadet Wine Bar,
Mr. de la Noue, my husband and I, pleasantly wracking our brains as the breeze
fluttered over the gorgeous blue water and the temporary tents gleamed like so
many giant white Hershey’s Kisses (that image is not a plug; it stems from
personal taste — I’ve always loved Hershey’s Kisses and unless they start
clubbing baby seals to make them, I always will).

The four of us devoted several game-show-style minutes to
trying to come up with the title of that very early film with Canet. I
remembered that the director had gone on to make “Like a Fish Out of
Water” because it was on the set of that film that I learned from a
Turkish actor that my last name spoken aloud sounds like the Turkish for
“How are you?” — which might have come as a surprise to my Russian
ancestors.

This wracking of brains is, you’ll recall, how people who
care about film spent a LOT of their time before the Internet made all sorts of
information — much of it accurate — so easily available.  Finally, the publicist got up and went into
the covered portion of the facility.  A
few minutes later, a different perfectly groomed woman ran out and exclaimed,
“Barracuda!”

Yes, yes, of course! It WAS called “Barracuda!”

We went on talking about cinema for a while. In fact, the
only wine-o-centric portion of the conversation revealed that the bottles lined
up behind the bar by hue were props that only looked as if they contained wine.
I learned that moonlight is even more deadly to wine than sunlight.

Product placement can be kind of creepy but sponsorship can
be kind of admirable. (It’s my understanding that a healthy chunk of public
money goes into mounting the Cannes Film Festival but that sponsors are what
make such an enormous undertaking possible.)

Last September, I was part of a small delegation of
FIPRESCI-affiliated film critics at the relatively young PRIfest in Prishtina,
Kosovo. We were there to conduct a workshop for budding film critics from the
Balkans. There’s only one commercial cinema in Prishtina and nearly all of the
workshop participants freely admitted that they see films via illegal downloads
or bootleg DVDs. They were a sharp bunch with extensive film knowledge and
lively opinions.

The rather tasty fizzy mineral water S. Pellegrino (also
affiliated with Cannes) was a PRIfest sponsor and so, before each screening, we
watched a promotional short showing bottles of Italian H2O in a flattering
light. So far, so good. But the entire wordless extravaganza was set to an
English-language song in which a woman sings: “I try to walk away and I
choke….”

Call me literal-minded or a stickler for content as well as
form, but I find it unwise for a company purveying something one SWALLOWS to
use a song in which the word “choke” appears with frightening
regularity.  Does listening over and over
to a song whose first-person lyrics lament the singer’s inability to leave her
lover somehow reinforce allegience to S. Pellegrino?  Advertising (or captive repeat exposure) DOES
work — now every time I order a bottle of S. Pellegrino I think of the song
with “choke” in the lyrics.

And to make up for my lack of creativity in subtly promoting
the Rothschild family’s fruit of the vine, yesterday, in the liquor section of
my local Paris supermarket, I purchased a bottle of Mouton Cadet red.

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Comments

barbara

Is that the place they take special guests to Cannes Classics screenings to wait until Bunuel is nearly full? Interesting piece Lisa.

Annette

All true, Lisa. And the Mouton Cadet Wine Bar is indeed one of the loveliest quiet spots during the frenzy of the Cannes Film Festival. And not just for wine: before heading into yet another screening, as the sun was starting to set, I had a most welcome cup of coffee there towards the end of this year's Fest …

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