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Cannes Tackles Television: Why a Global TV Festival Could Be a Gamechanger

The city of Cannes wants to launch a new TV festival to rival its famous film event. Here's what it might mean for the future of great film and great TV.

Palais Des Festivals along the Croisette in Cannes

Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Existing Competition

Television confabs are not hard to find internationally, including the Monte Carlo Television Festival, held in nearby Monaco. There are also already a number of relatively young festivals devoted entirely to television, each of them seeking a different approach to how to showcase the world of episodic storytelling.

A few notable U.S. TV festivals include Atlanta’s aTVfest, which focuses on currently airing broadcast, cable, and streaming series; Austin’s ATX Television Festival, which also brings in the casts and creators of classic series for reunions and retrospective events (arguably the most buzzy part of the fest); Denver’s SeriesFest mixes content with distribution, along with an independent pilot competition that features projects in search of distribution or bigger deals; and Vermont’s ITVFest, which also features independent content.

All do a great job of giving festival attendees a well-curated representation of new series, though they don’t necessarily capture the power that comes with episodic content. A festival film screening stands on its own; a festival series screening is at best only a core sample. By necessity, a TV festival can screen no more than three episodes of a series, and usually offers just one. That makes it very hard to evaluate these shows on a critical basis or — more importantly for potential buyers — on the basis of sustainability.

One reason why “O.J.: Made in America” was such a smash on the festival circuit (and perhaps why it was claimed as a film project, despite its episodic roots) is ESPN chose to screen the entire series over one day. The Tribeca premiere last April lasted nine hours, with two breaks for snacks (generously provided by ESPN). Though the filmmakers have deemed “O.J.” a movie and it’s currently an Oscar frontrunner for best documentary, by most standards watching the entire series with an audience in one sitting is not a traditional theatrical experience; it’s a binge-viewing that’s unique to the festival environment.

More significantly, these are localized events primarily designed to address the needs of a North American audience and industry; an event at Cannes would be engineered for the entire world. The film festival invites thousands of deal-makers, cinephiles and other influential figures from virtually every territory, in addition to well-heeled investors who host yacht parties for the rich and famous. One can easily imagine a similar crowd — eager to network — turning up for an international TV event, which could dramatically effect the expansion of TV industries across the global marketplace.

READ MORE: Why Independent Television Finally Deserves Independent TV Festivals

Burning Questions

A few more points to ponder as Cannes plans to launch its TV event:

1. How much of the festival will be made up of competitive titles?

Cannes Film Festival programmers aren’t involved the proposed TV festival, but given the city’s intent of creating a TV event that matches the film festival’s power and influence, we’ll use their format as a roadmap for discussion. Most prominent film titles belong to the Official Selection, which accounts for 20 films that compete for the Palme d’Or. Other features screen as part of the Out of Competition slate, or in Special Screenings. Then there’s Un Certain Regard, a category that highlights original works from around the globe, not to mention Directors Fortnight and Critics Week. While the number of films across all sections is small relative to other major festivals, each film has the potential to gain international exposure overnight, and those that win awards carry their festival laurels right into their marketing plans.

What sections will Cannes TV Festival create to highlight the array of television available for distribution? We know the city plans an international competition, but the size and scope of the lineup has yet to be clarified. Moreover, a focus placed on competition — pitting independent projects against each another, stirring interest in all of them — could make the Cannes TV Festival as much of a hot market as the film festival.

2. Who will hear the pitches at the co-production forum?

The film festival pulls in a global selection of respected actors, directors, writers, and producers to serve on its film juries, providing the awards even more relevance to the artists receiving them. It would be great to see a diverse array of TV veterans serve a similar role in competition, while highly influential individuals lead the co-production forum.

3. What is “the online component” of the festival mentioned in the city’s announcement? 

Is it special competition for web series? Could it be a way to view pilots outside of Cannes? Public screenings of series are promised throughout the city, and online viewing options could decrease the need to be in Cannes. Exposure is key for up-and-coming, salable series; whatever this is, it needs to broaden the event’s focus.

4. How will the festival coordinate with the MIPTV and MIPCOM television markets?

Will they be competitors or collaborators? Since the goal is to run two simultaneously, we have to imagine there will be plenty of give and take between the market and the festival. Here’s hoping they figure out to make all three thrive. The film festival takes place concurrently with the Marché du Film, a global marketplace where much of the industry gets its work done. But given that Cannes already hosts major TV markets, it may be redundant for the festival to launch a new one.

5. How much of this TV festival will be dedicated to independent pilots and TV series, rather than premieres of network shows?

Here, it’s important to note the films that screened under each category at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Competition titles at last year’s festival included the usual assortment of independently produced features from respected auteurs, including “American Honey,” “The Neon Demon,” and “Loving.” Meanwhile, big studio movies like “The BFG,” “Money Monster,” and “The Nice Guys” played out of competition. The festival tends to treat a handful of directors as part of its unofficial club, inviting them back year after year. This sometimes means that the festival hosts the premieres for the best new movies of the year, but it often comes at the expense of discovering new voices.

What balance will the TV festival strike? Many film and TV festivals incorporate both independent series and network shows. SXSW, for example, skews heavily toward the latter, while SeriesFest prioritizes the former. A flood of network shows could turn the event into a marketing showcase rather than a real opportunity for true independents. (It’s also good to remember that the TV business operates very differently from film, as most distribution outlets – aka, networks or streaming services –are heavily involved in a show’s development from the outset, and more frequently than not has an ownership stake.)

The earliest debut date of the Cannes television festival is only 15 months away. As they say in television, stay tuned.

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