It’s a chaotic time in the indie film world. Our best and brightest filmmakers want to be in television, and while VOD gives audiences access to more movies, we can’t yet tell if streaming technology is our savior or our undoing. The Cannes Film Festival is responding to the dilemma just as we might expect — by not responding at all.
Unlike other film festivals, at Cannes there has been no movement to acknowledge the rising influence of television. Cannes actively resists such trends: As artistic director Thierry Fremaux told Indiewire’s Eric Kohn back in 2011, “Cannes doesn’t compete with anybody. Cannes is Cannes.”
And that’s one reason why Cannes — despite its market tensions and outrageous prices for, say, a lukewarm Coke with three ice cubes — holds so much charm for the industry. Let the rest of the world do as they like; Cannes retains its reputation as the highest cathedral of cinema, with the auteur theory as its bible. Like so many churches, it’s a haven of familiarity in a world of uncertainty.
Of the dozen American indie films selected this year across all sections, half are from filmmakers who’ve been there at least twice, including Andrea Arnold, Paul Schrader, Sean Penn and Nicolas Winding Refn. (Special props to Woody Allen, whose “Café Society” will be the third of his films to open the Cannes Festival, and to Jim Jarmusch, who’s knocking out two titles this year — the drama “Paterson” in competition, and a Midnight Screening of the Iggy Pop documentary “Gimme Danger.”)
Cannes’ dedicated focus on auteurs can make it oddly adaptable. While the industry debates what Netflix and Amazon will mean for the landscape, Cannes just wants what it wants. This year, that means five productions from Amazon, which is making its festival debut. The company’s newness as a distributor is irrelevant to Cannes; what matters is that the films are all from auteurs: The Jarmusch titles, Refn’s “The Neon Demon,” Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” and Allen’s “Café Society.”
The other U.S. films that come into the fest with distribution are David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” (CBS Films), Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” (Focus), Arnold’s “American Honey” (A24) and Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” (Bleecker Street).
This leaves just four U.S. movies seeking a buyer: Sean Penn’s “The Last Face,” Schrader’s Nicolas Cage thriller “Dog Eat Dog,” Oscar-winner Laura Poitras’ Julian Assange documentary “Risk” and neorealist horror drama “The Transfiguration” from first-time filmmaker Michael O’Shea. (Of note: His film includes indie icons Lloyd Kaufman as a hobo and Larry Fessenden as a drunk.)
In recent years, smaller U.S. productions such as “Blue Ruin” and “It Follows” landed distribution and benefited from Cannes’ prestige — but the festival isn’t always a barometer for commercial potential. Protagonist Pictures CEO Mike Goodridge, attending Cannes for his 26th year with “The Transfiguration” and “American Honey,” recalls joking with the newsroom during his days as a Screen International journalist. “I’d say, ‘Stop taking these films so seriously. In six months, we’ll see if they’re playing in the theater or not.'”
But none of that matters for the brief moment when they play on the Croisette.
As Fremaux put it to Indiewire in 2014: “The great museums show the great painters. Cannes shows great filmmakers.” And for 10 days, the festival can act as if that’s all that matters.
A version of this article appears in the print edition of Variety.