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How My First Trip to Cannes Changed My Perception of the Independent Film World

How My First Trip to Cannes Changed My Perception of the Independent Film World

One of the first things I learned upon arriving at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time is this: Many of the people who come to Cannes year after year aren’t actually there to watch movies.

It’s a lamentable truth that for literally thousands of film industry professionals, Cannes serves more as a trade show than a celebration of cinema. For these individuals, more important than seeing the movies screening in competition is the opportunity to strike a deal with a financier or distributor at the festival’s marketplace, aka the Marché du Film. As one distributor I met with remarked, the irony of the experience can be maddening. After pursuing a career in film because of your love of movies, you arrive at the granddaddy of film festivals only to spend all your time chasing money.

While the mood at the Marché is all business all the time, it’s easy to get the impression from those manning the booths that there’s less business to be had every year. At the same time that buyers are complaining about the dearth of quality projects, sales agents are saying they can’t raise enough money from investors or through pre-sales to foreign territories. A common refrain heard throughout the festival is, “It’s even harder this year.”

READ MORE: Cannes 2016: Complete List of This Year’s Winners

The parties at Cannes are a different story. Whether it’s the after party for a well received competition film like “American Honey” — no, I couldn’t get into that one — or a private event for Chloe Sevigny’s short film “Kitty” — where the actress-turned-director was surrounded by throngs of security guards all night — most people were celebrating like they just accomplished the cinematic equivalent of winning the Super Bowl.

But to what end? None of these films are going to have the easiest time when they finally hit theaters in the U.S., assuming they get that far. While I didn’t mind getting up in time to catch 8:30 am screenings of films like Bruno Dumont’s bizarre, surrealist comedy “Slack Bay,” American audiences aren’t going to come out in droves to see this kind of non-commercial fare, most of which will fly completely under the radar in the U.S. — where not even Dumont’s previous Cannes Grand Jury Prize winners “Flanders” or “Humanité” were box office hits.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that at a festival where not even the award-winning movies are guaranteed money makers, the sense of competition is palpable everywhere. Even the parties gave me the impression that everyone who comes to Cannes has something to sell, something to buy, or something to prove. Walking through the marketplace for the first time, which attracted a record 11,900 registrations from badge holders this year, I was struck by how many people were fighting for movie dollars, and how much of this global activity is hidden from the U.S.

Some 985 feature films, including 790 Marché premieres, played at Cannes, for a total of 1,426 screenings. More than 1,000 other projects were offered to buyers, bringing the total number of films on sale to 3,450.

Before digging into the marketplace, however, I had to make sense of the madness that is the daily Cannes routine. It took a couple days to get used waking up on four or five hours of sleep, hustling down Rue D’Antibes — so as to avoid the security gates and bottle necks on the Croisette — and showing up by 8:00 am for an 8:30 screening. The theaters fill up fast. Stopping when someone asks if you have an extra ticket is not an option.

After the screenings, there’s no time to stay for the credits. People are already bolting out of their seats to get a jump on the press conference line. If you’re lucky enough to get in the room with the other reporters, it’s best to pick a seat as close to the moderator as possible, or you’ll never get to ask a question. I finally got my turn with the microphone at my ninth press conference, for the Dardenne brothers’ “The Unknown Girl.” Another press conference, evening screening and party and the cycle started all over again.

Once the festival passed the halfway point, conversation quickly turned to which films stood a chance at nabbing one of the many coveted awards. Notably, not a single prediction I heard came true. In fact, Xavier Dolan’s Grand Prix winner “It’s Only the End of the World” was one of the most universally disliked titles at the festival. I actually enjoyed the way the movie told an intimate family story through intense close-ups, dramatic lighting and loud pop music, but I never would have guessed it would come home with an award.

I also didn’t expect to hear booing after Oliver Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” which ended up sharing the Best Director prize with Romanian director Cristian Mungiu for “Graduation.” While the boos for Sean Penn’s film “The Last Face,” were less of a surprise — it’s never a good sign when people laugh at the first frame of a movie that’s not a comedy — at the press conference following the screening, the director and cast were as confident and proud as any group from the dozen other press screenings I attended. After all, their film did get into Cannes!

On the last night of the festival, listening to the different reactions from critics, distributors, producers and sales agents, it became clear that not even the Cannes regulars who have been coming for decades know which movies will be hits and which will be duds. If there’s one thing I learned from the experience, it’s that there’s no such thing as a Cannes consensus, and everyone truly is entitled to their own opinion.

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