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Cannes Marches On: Inside the Crisis Facing the World’s Most Prominent Festival

"If Cannes is canceled, Cannes is canceled," said festival director Thierry Fremaux, as the industry tries to navigate new terrain.

Atmosphere72nd Cannes Film Festival, Preparations, France - 12 May 2019

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival

SYSPEO/SIPA/Shutterstock

As scores of film festivals have canceled or postponed their dates in recent weeks, the Cannes Film Festival hovers in uncertainty. The world’s most prominent film gathering asserted its intention to take place in May per usual — until March 19, when it announced plans for new dates in late June and early July. Now, as the pandemic continues and major summer movies move to other dates, even that timeline sounds unlikely — and with the dense circuit of fall festivals beginning in late August, Cannes may run out of options if its current plans become untenable.

Reached for comment at his vacation home, festival director Thierry Fremaux was both defiant and practical. “If Cannes is canceled, Cannes is canceled,” he said. “We’re all facing a strong situation and we’ll fight until the last minute. If it’s not possible to have Cannes in 2020, rendezvous in 2021 and I already can tell you that it will be something to be there all together again. The Mediterranean Sea is waiting for us.”

While the festival initially planned to hold back on public statements until it sorted out its new dates, pressure has mounted to address the possibility faced by many festivals: the prospect of an online festival to replace the real one. Earlier in the week, in an interview with Variety, Fremaux cited high-profile titles Cannes considered for premieres — including Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and Pixar’s “Soul” — as intended for the big screen, and stressed that Cannes felt the same way for all its titles.

“Regarding a digital festival, I must confess that I can’t really understand it,” Fremaux told IndieWire. “The directors and producers must be asked first if they want their film on the internet or on the big screen. We are not the owners of the movies.”

He added that the physical component of Cannes was so key to its identity that he found a virtual solution inconceivable. “Cannes is the place for shows, for movies screened in front of 2,200 spectators,” he said, referencing the vast Lumiere Theatre where the majority of the Official Selection screens, “with attention, noise, acclamation, critics, market consequences, etc. It is the greatest place for the annual meeting of world cinema, where people meet each other. It’s hard to think that it can be replaced by something virtual.”

Of course, that argument alone can’t justify an event when France continues to reel from the impact of the pandemic and crowds of any scale have been deemed unsafe. Half the world’s confirmed cases of coronavirus are in Europe. Across the world, festivals have begun to explore the potential for virtual solutions. In North America, SXSW held its juried competition, and plans to make some films available on Amazon for free this month. Tribeca has similar plans in place for its competition and will make some films available even as it explores the potential of future dates. In Europe, both Copenhagen’s documentary showcase CPH: DOX and the Visions du Réel have taken their programming online, and Paris-based streaming platform Festival Scope has partnered with video streaming platform Shift72 to help festivals create online screening events.

However, that approach has met with conflicting perspectives across the industry. Across North America, programmers are wrestling with whether an online showcase would ruin a film’s premiere status if it screened at a physical festival down the line. In Europe, that question has a firm answer. Competition festivals such as Cannes and Venice are considered “A” festivals regulated by the International Federation of Film Producers, otherwise known as FIAPF, which holds that an online premiere counts as a world premiere. That means films that opt for limited online availability will have a harder time screening at major European festivals later on.

Fremaux did acknowledge the pressing need for innovation, even if it impacted the potential to premiere elsewhere later on. “As the economic situation is such a disaster for this year, I perfectly understand that this or that film is unable to wait for a super-late release and can be sold to a platform,” he said.

At the same time, some sales agents have been advising filmmakers against online premieres with festivals like Tribeca and SXSW’s Amazon partnership because it might deter buyers. “We just want to be completely in charge of the process,” said one U.S. sales agent. “We don’t know how many people see it this way. I could imagine if you’re Hulu, Netflix, or HBO Max, you’re wondering, ‘Why would I take that film that was free on Amazon?’” SXSW’s Janet Pierson acknowledged that not all films would be onboard. “We’re looking forward to presenting a collection of the films from our lineup, and knew this opportunity would be of interest to those filmmakers who wanted to be in front of a large audience as part of their project’s plan,” she said. “While we are embracing all innovative and out of the box thinking for films affected by the cancellation of our March event, we understand this opportunity doesn’t make sense for every film.”

AtmosphereMarche Du Film Opening Night, 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 15 May 2019

Marche Du Film Opening Night at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival

Katie Jones/Variety/Shutterstock

Fortunately for that side of the business, American buyers ranging from Neon to IFC Films continue to consider available titles from festival lineups even if they have been canceled. That has made it more practical for sales agents to make smaller films available to buyers without festival premieres, while saving higher-profile work for the fall season.

And yes, the fall season remains the only truly viable timeline for U.S. buyers who typically turn to Cannes to shore up their international offerings. “Pushing Cannes into the summer dictates that any pickups from Cannes will be 2021 midyear releases,” said Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber. “For a film that gets a lot of attention in Cannes, critical acclaim and awards, some of that allure will fade by the time it’s actually brought to market.”

Lorber agreed with Fremaux’s assessment of a virtual festival. “I personally don’t think it’s as compelling,” he said. “Cannes is not just about seeing the film — it’s seeing the film with the people we count on to see the film with, meaning press, exhibitors and festival influencers. We can make more calculated decisions based upon some consensus of opinion.”

IFC Films executive vice president Arianna Bocco has been actively buying movies for weeks, securing deals for Sundance premieres “The Nest” and “Tesla,” while screening titles made available by sales agents from canceled festivals. Over the years, IFC been one of the more active American buyers at Cannes, but Bocco said she wasn’t counting on it this time.

“Based on the current landscape worldwide, we are operating on the premise that Cannes won’t happen,” she said. “With this in mind, my primary interest is getting access to screen the movies that I need to see in order to buy. I don’t think it’s realistic to halt the pipeline completely.”

Lorber struck a similar note when considering the notion of a summertime Cannes. “It’ll give us pause to make us wait and see what’s coming at Toronto,” he said. “Maybe we should just sit on our hands.”

However, fall festivals are eyeing the Cannes conundrum and wondering if they may have to deal with a similar situation. Like Fremaux, Venice director Alberto Barbera rejected the idea of an online festival alternative earlier this week. In an email to IndieWire, he echoed the sense that the current June target for Cannes looked unlikely.

Thierry Fremaux, Director of the Cannes Film Festival, and Alberto Barbera, Director of the Venice Film FestivalAlberto Barbera and Thierry Fremaux photocall, 73rd Venice Film Festival, Italy - 30 Aug 2016

Thierry Fremaux, Director of the Cannes Film Festival, and Alberto Barbera, Director of the Venice Film Festival

Maria Laura Antonelli/Agf/Shutterstock

“I am afraid that all festivals that take place between now and mid-summer will have to face the unprecedented situation of a decision that could lead to a forced cancellation or undated postponement,” Barbera wrote. “It’s extremely difficult to say if the festivals of the fall will be able to be held regularly or not. We need to wait a bit more in order to get clear and certain information of what we have to expect in the forthcoming months, and decide upon defined elements.” He added that he did not expect any new decision to be made about Venice’s plans until the end of May.

Barbera also dispelled one rumor about a potential collaboration between Venice and Cannes in the fall. “The only wish I’d like to express is that solidarity should be the one and only attitude face to this worldwide crisis,” he wrote. As with other major fall festivals Telluride, TIFF, and New York Film Festival, Barbera said he was continuing to go through the usual programming process, while many fall festival programmers said they were hearing from a higher-volume distributors looking to position their titles for the fall corridor.

Fremaux, however, said he continued to go through those motions as well. “The 2020 selection process is intense,” he said. “We watch a lot of movies every day, received by links — the same amount as last year, nobody is missing. In a way, it’s very touching. I want to thank all the directors and producers who are sending their films to us.” He added that the autonomous Cannes sidebars of Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week “are with us, hoping that Cannes could exist this year.”

Fremaux said he was heartened by the feedback he had received from industry colleagues. “It is not about Cannes, it’s about what Cannes is helpful for: the industry, the films, the artists, the critics, the audience, the entire economy of one of the most important industries in the world, which is in danger,” he said. “We must help that, fight for it.” He also acknowledged the bigger picture: “I have a lot of thoughts for those who are suffering,” he said. “Right now, this fight against the virus is the most important one.”

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