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by Eugene Hernandez
May 13, 2009 1:23 AM
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Does Cannes Matter?

A ritual of Spring for many, the Cannes Film Festival kicks off its 62nd edition on Wednesday in the French Rivera, but does anyone care? Does the festival matter anymore?

We posed that question to a cross section of film industry insiders, many of whom are heading to the fest, and got an array of answers.

Chances are, if you believe in the power of cinema (and debate things like the death of film criticism), you will quickly say yes. Even if you've never attended, the Cannes brand has likely been associated with a certain type of cinema: films that are celebrated but sometimes hard to find, movies that are heady and often dense, work that is eclectic but sometimes transformative.

On Tuesday, the rituals of Cannes began again on another bright and sunny day in the South of France. Long lines of registered guests in the Palais des Festivals waited for their badges, while nearby local workers propped up large billboards on the sides of the many hotels that line the seaside Croisette boulevard. At large group dinners inside La Pizza, folks polled each other about which movie they were most excited about. The answers at one table ranged from Almodovar and Campion to Michael Haneke, Park Chan Wook and Isabel Coixet.

For film geeks and many industry insiders, this year's Cannes fest lineup is extraordinarily exciting, offering new films from a high-profile roster of international filmmakers.

It all begins on Wednesday with the eagerly anticipated Pixar 3D movie, "Up." Even many cynical industry types who work primarily in specialty and art-house film seem excited to settle into a large Cannes theater to experience the film first-hand.

So, does Cannes Matter? At indieWIRE, the answer is very easy: "Yes."

In fact, asking whether Cannes matters is sort of like asking, Does film crticism matter? Do festivals matters? Do auteurs matter? Do movies matter?

The festival

"I'm not sure if I'm actually answering your question, but there's two different Cannes Festivals that go on simultaneously," explained Ira Deutchman from Emerging Pictures, "The one that is a marketplace clearly tanked last year based on the number of films bought and their ultimate lack of success. The other one, where world cinema is on showcase, was very vibrant, and was a very clear indication that there is still great work being made."

"The Cannes festival is still the number one barometer for what's important in cinema and also the biggest stage for the voices behind the camera to be heard around the world," offered Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics (and a twenty-nine year veteran of the festival. "Why?" he continued. "Attend the films that play there, they speak for themselves."

"Cannes remains the most important film festival in the world," noted Richard Pena, head of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Each year he and his fellow programmers bring "But with so many more films available it can't possibly control the field as it might have in the past."

"Film folk and film journos have been going to Cannes for so many decades that it's become part of the industry's genetic code," noted blogger Jeff Wells from Hollywood Elsewhere. A one man band who roams the festival with a camera always around his neck, he began attending Cannes in the early 90s for Entertainment Weekly. "Asking 'Does Cannes matter?' is like asking if breathing matters," Wells continued, "It has always been and always will be. And it does matter as a place and an event that allows -- in fact goads -- all partakers and participants to embrace ars gratia artis."

"As the market for serious international cinema continues its box office contraction in this country, Cannes remains the crucial standard bearer for the most important artists working in film today," explained Tom Hall, blogger and Sarasota Film Festival programmer. "The festival still sets the agenda for U.S. foreign film buyers and major festival programs throughout the rest of the year (and beyond) and while the very selective program, the black ties and champagne harken back to the glamour of the past, the content and the quality of the films is, regardless of the economy, always the bell weather for the state of the art."

"Yes, the festival certainly matters a lot these days," noted David Nugent, artistic director at the Hamptons International Film Festival. "While technological advances and other changes to the landscape provide a number of ways to access films around the world these days, Cannes remains as an example of all of the great things that a festival experience can provide... It is for me, the cinematic high point of the year and serves as an inspiration for much of what I, and others in the industry, work towards. I also can't help but think that it feels a bit like Christmas...when we get to wake up and open up the gifts that these great directors offer...some duds, and some gems."

The market

"From a U.S. acquisitions perspective, it is much less relevant as many of the bigger players in the specialized arena no longer see an economic value to picking up strictly arthouse films, which is what Cannes is known for," offered a top executive from a major Hollywood company. A seasoned veteran, the individual asked to remain anonymous. "Gone are the days when Miramax would pick up five films in one festival; where Focus would pre-empt the Wong Kar Wai, etc. It is left to IFC, SPC, Roadside Attractions and Magnolia to battle it out for the right to the very slim margins that North American arthouse is."

"I think Cannes is still a great festival -- I've seen terrific films nearly every time I've been," said Roadside Attractions co-president Eric d'Arbeloff. "The economics of releasing foreign language art films are tough, but what else is new? For now, being there kind of goes with the territory of being in the specialized distribution business. But, I could certainly see that changing."

"Cannes is still an important event in the global film calendar. And however it worked out so well for 2009, the fact that they have a big list of Cannes favorites helps them underscore the relevance of the festival to world cinema and at least the American arthouse," offered Roadside co-president Howard Cohen, separately. "For Tarantino, Jane Campion, Lars Von Trier, Michael Hanneke, and Almodovar, Cannes really mattered in making their careers, so it's great they are all back to help counteract the world's general gloomy outlook."

"In terms of bigtime dealmaking and film financing and acquisitions, Cannes seems gradually less important each year, but I don't see this as a watershed year in that respect," Cohen coninued. "A few notable acquisitions of films will happen at Cannes, just as only a few important acquisitions now happen at Sundance and Toronto when you come down to it."

"After a long run of attending the festival I weighed the factors," began a leading industry attendee who decided to sit out this year. He asked to remain anonymous. "For the last 3 years it has become almost unbearable to attend the screenings. This is true for me on the Market side as well as the Festival Side." Citing difficulties in recent years gaining access to screenings, despite having tickets, the exec found that screenings often run late or a sales agent pick and chooses attendees at the door.

"I don’t want to spend the money it costs to go to Cannes and not be able to see the films on time and in an orderly manner," the insider said, "This is accomplished in Toronto and (now) in Sundance. For me to stand in line, then get turned away is not appealing nor is it fiscally rewarding. I chose to stay home this year, for the above reasons. Others are staying away because of the economy, but I have my doubts that this festival will recover without changing its operations."

"Cannes matters to Europe the way Toronto matters to the U.S. It is an annual gateway event for the less commercial (though sometimes massively successful) product that will cover the continent for the next year or so," offered David Poland. "Cannes doesn't matter much to the U.S., except to film fest programmers and critical press. Buyers still buy in Cannes, but the truth is, as it is in most of the fest world, that if it is a big sale for the U.S., it sold before it arrived." He continued, "The problem is, fest selling is part of an old system that includes the carnival. Buyers don't need the carnival anymore. Half the time, the principles see the movies outside of big hall screenings anyway."

"Cannes is a great festival. The issue is not whether Cannes is great..." Poland concluded, "It's whether the things that made Cannes important to the US market are still valued. I would say, less and less every day."


Final thoughts

"The Cannes Film Festival matters, but it's obviously somewhat archaic in the grand scheme of things, just like all festivals," said Eric Kohn, critic, blogger and writer who is reviewing movies at the festival for indieWIRE. "When you consider the way people like Geoff Gilmore discuss the old festival model being broken, it would seem that Cannes -- because of its prominence on the global festival scene -- represents this deterioration to the greatest degree." He continued, "And yet Cannes's persistent romanticizing of the movies provides one of the better reminders that they deserve serious consideration as an art form alongside all others. If there were some way to combine this lavish treatment of the movies with the way the medium is evolving, Cannes would certainly shed its old school image. In theory, anyway."

Does the Cannes Film Festival matter? "Now more than ever," wrote Jeff Hill, the veteran publicist. "The indie scene, especially the foreign films we mainly work on in Cannes, need a launching pad for their product. As we know in our indie world - festivals (Cannes/Venice/TIFF) do that in a big way."

"When Cannes no longer matters, film will no longer matter," expressed Christian Gaines, director of festivals for IMDB's Withoutabox. "Fortunately, I don’t see this happening. Film festivals (led by Cannes, the Godfather of them all) are in a unique position right now as they cope with film community’s latest transitional re-invention — the introduction of non-traditional distribution platforms. In this environment, festivals like Cannes will be examining the experience of communal movie-going and realizing that the most important role they can play is the one they have been playing all along – honoring film artists by highlighting their work in the best possible environment. In this way, audiences, filmmakers, the film industry and the media enter into an enormous global conversation. And from that conversation will emerge new ideas about art, technology and business — ideas which will themselves debut at a future Cannes Film Festival."

"Given all the talk about the collapse of the indie market and the vast changes that are taking place, it struck me last year that what made Cannes matter was that it might have been the last place left that seemed to be in a complete state of denial," concluded Ira Deutchman from Emerging Pictures, "This was a fantasy land, where films are still shown on celluloid, where auteurs are still worshipped and where critics still matter...and it seemed like all the above parties were having a great time. It'll be interesting to see if that still holds true this year...and also to see what affect the economy and the anticipated diminished attendance will have."

indieWIRE will make the case for Cannes on a regular basis over the next twelve days or so, reporting from France with frequent updates on the films, filmmakers, deals, and parties that make up the annual fest. We hope you'll join us.

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