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Cannes Vs. Coronavirus: If the World’s Biggest Festival Is Canceled, Here’s What Happens

Cannes says it's business as usual, but it faces an unprecedented situation that could impact every level of the industry. We asked festival leaders, and this is what's at stake.

Workers Install the Giant Screen of the Cinema De La Plage the Festival's Outdoors Theater Ahead of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes France 12 May 2015 the Festival Runs From 13 to 24 May France CannesFrance Cannes Film Festival 2015 - May 2015

The scene on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival

Franck Robichon/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

So far, for various stakeholders, the biggest film-industry impact of the coronavirus is either dwindling box office in China or the decision to move the new James Bond movie into the fall. However, as the number of confirmed cases worldwide inches toward 100,000 with an estimated 3,356 deaths, the most pressing question facing the international film business is the 73rd edition of the Cannes Film Festival, slated to take place May 12 – 23. As the largest global film event, virtually every country in the world is waiting to find out if the dense French Riviera gathering can move forward.

Cannes itself has yet to make any public decision, leaving scores of industry players at every level speculating about the sprawling convergence of red-carpet glamour, world-class programming, and marketplace activity. Last year’s edition was especially impressive: the Marche du Film reported a record 12,527 participants, and the Competition awarded the Palme d’Or to future Best Picture winner “Parasite,” which premiered the same day as Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

What might happen if the Croisette went dormant this year? If Cannes is canceled, do all of its movies travel to some other festivals? And what do they think about that? IndieWire made some calls to answer these and other pressing questions as the future remains wide open.

How Likely Is It That Cannes Is Canceled?

That depends on who you ask. The first case of coronavirus in Cannes was confirmed on February 28. The next day, the French government issued a ban on gatherings of more than 5,000 people. On March 4, the Cannes-based international television conference MipTV was canceled; Canneseries, the competitive television festival, was moved to October 9. On Thursday morning, the French government expanded its ban through May 31, adding to mounting expectations of an impact on Cannes.

The festival, however, continues to downplay the drama. On Friday, it sent out a release confirming plans to announce its Official Selection on April 16, per usual. It also reported a 9% increase in accreditation requests from last year. Spike Lee is still on track to serve as the president of the jury.

Aïda Belloulid, the festival’s official spokesperson, said the ban had no direct impact on the festival’s organization since “We are never more than 5,000 gathered in one closed place.” The largest venue, the Lumiere Theatre in the palatial Palais des Festivals, seats 2,300. Thierry Fremaux, the festival’s artistic director, said he was busy watching movies for the selection process. In a message to IndieWire, he wrote, “The great and only Cannes Film Festival will be in May!”

Still, seating at the Lumiere doesn’t embody the sheer scope of Cannes. It doesn’t take into account the throngs of people who gather outside the building on the dense oceanside strip known as the Croisette, or the crowds that fill the Palais basement at the Marche du Film. However, it does provide the festival with an easy way to dodge the question until pressure mounts to change its plans. In the case of MipTV, the festival waited to receive an official request from the French government in order to finalize its insurance claim.

A general view of the Croisette during preparations for the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, . The Cannes film festival runs from May 14th until May 25th 20192019, Cannes, France - 13 May 2019

Given these developments, many people watching from afar are finding it hard to imagine Cannes taking place on schedule. The city is located less than an hour from the Italian border, where at least 3,858 people have been infected by the virus and 148 have died. Sources working on various movies that might travel to the festival say that talent has grown wary of boarding planes, and a major aspect of the Cannes experience involves the celebrities on the red carpet. It’s also reliant on companies from around the world traveling to the festival. If key territories drop out, Cannes simply wouldn’t be Cannes.

So what’s with all the denials? Part of it stems from the general formality of French culture and Cannes in particular, as well as a powerful board that includes influential figures from across its industry. It’s also likely that nobody has figured out how to chart a path forward, and Cannes would rather continue with work as usual until it has no other choice.

Many within the tight circle of Cannes organizers have declined comment. Vincent Maraval, head of sales company Wild Bunch, tends to bring some of the biggest Cannes titles to the festival each year. He is currently away on vacation and did not respond to emails.

One Cannes organizer who did pick up his phone this week was Paolo Moretti, the new artistic director of autonomous Cannes sidebar Directors’ Fortnight, who completed his first edition of the festival last year. “For the moment, we are preparing the festival,” Moretti said. “Three weeks ago, it was a completely different world. Three weeks from now, I don’t know what will happen. We all have the same amount of information and the same attitude: We are preparing to announce the lineup. We can’t do otherwise.”

Moretti described the current mood among his staff as “disquieting,” but added that “the cancellation of MipTV gave us a horizon of temporality — that maybe in a month’s time, some kind of decision will be made for us.” At the same time, he added, “I can only hope that maybe in a few weeks’ time there will be enough information that the situation will be different.”

Is There Precedent?

Not exactly. Cannes was launched in 1939 as a response to the fascist leanings of the Mussolini-era Venice Film Festival, but the start of WWII meant the inaugural event ended after one screening, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” After the war, the festival held one edition in 1947, then held off for the next two years due to budgetary problems.

Over the next 20 years, however, it evolved into the superpower as it is known today, with the Marche du Film launching in 1959. The most dramatic interference came in 1968, when the festival was interrupted by protestors, and a labor strike led several filmmakers to pull their movies from competition. That revolt instigated the launch of the Directors’ Fortnight the following year, in part as an opposition to the bigger festival’s establishment tastes. (These days they work together, with the Fortnight programming usually operating in deference to the Official Selection.)

So no, Cannes has never been canceled in the modern era, and it has become such a momentous annual event that many filmmakers, distributors, sales agents, and programmers can’t envision the year without it. “This would be really a first,” Moretti said. “I really prefer not to think about it now. It would be too depressing. I really want to keep the faith and hope the progression of this situation will be positive. I can’t have another mindset at the moment.”

Other festivals located later in the year agreed. “Cannes is one of the industry’s most important gatherings for film professionals and the industry at large,” said Joana Vicente, executive director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “We hope that the global situation improves so that Cannes can go forward as scheduled.”

How Would It Impact Business?

Regardless of what happens with Cannes, the hypothetical presents a complicated scenario. The absence of Cannes would have a staggering impact on almost every level of the film business. While few studios premiere films in the lineup, starry projects are often assembled at the Marche along with thousands of productions from around the world. The absence of that market activity would have an unfathomable disruption on the routine for buyers and sellers around the world. While Cannes may impact only a small fraction of the box office in the U.S., in other territories, its laurels can have a real lasting impact. Last year, IndieWire reported on the rise of arthouse films at the Chinese box office, including several Cannes titles. “The world has changed in the last two or three years,” said Wild Bunch’s Maraval at the time. “For foreign-language films, the U.S. has always been a very minor market. Today, China is more of a priority.” While that certainly would change if Cannes took place this year, countless other markets could still benefit from the platform of Cannes.

Bong Joon-ho poses with his Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) for the movie 'Parasite' during the Award Winners photocall at the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 25 May 2019.Award Winners Photocall - 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 25 May 2019

Bong Joon-ho poses with his Palme d’Or for “Parasite” at Cannes

IAN LANGSDON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The cancellation of the festival would also impact distributors that want to launch their most exciting director-driven projects. Ironically, the Oscar wins for “Parasite” instigated more intrigue surrounding the potential for Cannes than ever before. The festival is poised to meet a new appetite in international cinema from North American buyers, including deep-pocketed streamers and others eyeing awards-season hopefuls. There were 22 Oscar nominations for Cannes Films this year, ranging from “Parasite” to Tarantino’s “Hollywood” to Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” to “Rocketman” and Syrian documentary “For Sama.” At the Oscar afterparty for “Parasite,” Fremaux celebrated the outcome by saying, “The Oscars and Cannes can fight for cinema — together!”

While American publicists and distributors don’t always dominate Croisette dealmaking, European firms do much of their business there. Michael Arnon, who runs the boutique PR film WOLF, said his company was already in the process of assembling its Cannes slate. “At this stage, we prefer to remain cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We’re already on board or in discussions on several promising titles likely to world premiere on the Croisette.”

Arnon said for certain titles there’s no substitution for Cannes’ impact. “For some films, there might be work to do with private screenings, or working online and remotely, but for the major prestige titles at the competition level that set the tone for world cinema, not many things can replace or recreate the impact of a Cannes premiere,” he said. “The same goes for the buzz titles and early marketing that catches fire at the Marche.”

What About the Movies?

The idea that Cannes might get canceled has led many insiders to turn to the fall festival circuit as a natural solution. Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Festival all provide exciting platforms for new cinema looking to launch into the heat of awards season. The assumption is programmers would happily absorb some of the Cannes clout, but it’s not that simple.

TIFF ordinarily invites around 25 features from the Cannes lineup, and while the Toronto gathering is the largest on the circuit, not every high-profile movie would benefit from squeezing into a busier calendar. “It could be a bloodbath,” one veteran said.

“It’s simply too early to comment on the impact for our own festival,” said Vicente. “TIFF is committed to working with the festivals that have been impacted to see how we can support them and their role in the industry. TIFF’s Programming department is working on the slate for September 2020, and it wouldn’t be prudent to speculate on the number of slots at this time. We will continue to monitor the situation and stay in contact with our friends and colleagues at upcoming major film festivals.”

Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera was similarly cautious. “It is extremely difficult, if not just impossible, to foresee what will happen in the next few weeks,” he said. “If the virus continues to spread, the consequences will probably affect not only the calendar of festivals, but also the entire film industry process.”

He added that Venice would be unlikely to accommodate the overflow. “Venice could be offered many more films to select, without being able to increase the number of invited movies significantly,” he said. “We still don’t know if Cannes is going to be cancelled, suspended or postponed — I hope not! — but it’s clear that its cancellation would have a strong impact on everybody.”

“Annette”

The Cannes 2020 lineup holds a lot of potential. Anticipated movies include the Amazon-produced “Annette,” a musical from French auteur Leos Carax starring Adam Driver; Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” which Searchlight has slated for a summer release; and Italian heavyweight Nanni Moretti’s “Tre Piani,” which may end up as the country’s Oscar submission. Many of these films are slated to open in France soon after their Cannes premieres, which is one way that the festival plays a crucial role in the country’s distribution ecosystem.

However, if any of these movies are pushed to later on the calendar, they don’t necessarily have to wait until the fall corridor. The summer offers a handful of significant European festivals that would be eager to take on some anticipated world premieres, including the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival in July and August’s Locarno Film Festival. The San Sebastian Film Festival in September could theoretically absorb some of the world premieres looking to get away from the density of the other September festival lineups. Other movies could end up at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Vicente suggested that the festival circuit would have to work together to sort out the mess. “We believe this is a moment where major film festivals and events need to support each other and address the impact to the industry,” she said. “We need to collaborate to deal with a global situation that is bigger than any one festival.”

Faced with the potential that some of his selections might wind up elsewhere, Moretti declined to speculate. “It opens the way for all kinds of unexpected, previously unseen solutions,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen, or if people will be willing to accept those changes. It’s very frustrating. Everything was going as best as possible until this happened.”

Can’t They Just Postpone the Festival?

Well, yes. If the May event can’t go on, Cannes would almost certainly try and salvage some aspect of its impact on the global film industry. The festival moved from the fall to the spring back in 1951 to accommodate Venice, and it could theoretically find some way to take place in that crowded period once again. One rumor circulating this week suggested that the festival considered moving to October, providing a platform for movies that still revered a Cannes competition slot and might want to pass on the usual fall festivals as a result. However, multiple festival representatives denied the rumor, and said that it stemmed from a confusion with MipTV’s decision to move to October.

But if Cannes were to postpone until another point in the calendar year, fall would make more sense than summer, as June and July are too close for comfort and would likely not be safe enough for Asian companies or sponsors to return. There is the additional potential for a consolidation of resources, since Fremaux also runs the Lumiere Festival in October. The celebration of classic films takes place in Lyon and utilizes the resources of the year-round Lumiere Institute, which could theoretically operate in tandem with Cannes.

But who knows? The virus keeps spreading, and Cannes keeps playing the waiting game. “There is a lot of speculation,” Moretti said. “I’d prefer to stick with the instruction we have at the moment, and hope they allow Cannes to happen. Maybe there will be some kind of intervention or modification that I don’t know or control, but I still hope that something can be done in order for the festival to happen.”

He noted that two weeks ago during the Berlin International Film Festival, “saying that Cannes might be impacted was a joke,” he said. “Now, it’s not a joke. It’s so undetermined that I struggle to express something because it would be meaningless.”

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