One year ago, the Cannes Film Festival was in limbo. Organizers postponed its May date to June, and then realized that the pandemic made the world’s most glamorous and crowded film festival impossible for 2020. Instead, Cannes announced an amorphous list of films, including future Oscar winner “Another Round.”
This year is another story. On April 29, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the country’s cultural venues that include movie theaters can reopen May 19. On May 28, Cannes plans to announce its lineup for the 74th edition that will take place July 6 -17. Up next: determining who will show up to capitalize on the epic attempt to resurrect the world’s most prestigious film brand.
With nine weeks to go before the festival, the approach is full steam ahead, and let the skeptics be damned. Leos Carax’s Adam Driver musical “Annette” has been announced as the opening-night selection, while high-profile 2020 carryovers such as Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” are confirmed for the Official Competition. “It’s time to speak about our confidence, if not certitude, that Cannes will take place in the month of July,” Cannes director Thierry Fremaux told a French radio station on April 18.
In play is the festival’s intense screening period that accelerates in the weeks leading up to the announcement (often, some films are selected moments before the press conference). By then, moviegoing will have returned to France for the first time since theaters shut down in October. Nevertheless, the nation continues to grapple with new lockdowns complicated by an impenetrable set of rules that should surprise no one who’s familiar with the travails of French bureaucracy. (A 7 p.m. curfew includes an exception to walk your dog, but only within 1 kilometer of your legal residence and “for a brief amount of time.”)
This time, Cannes has the benefit of others’ experience. Fremaux made a public appearance last fall at the Venice Film Festival, the only major European film event to host a physical festival. Venice’s online ticketing system and social distance restrictions allowed it to maintain a veneer of accountability; this year, Cannes reportedly plans a ticketing system of its own.
Beyond its impact on the global film market, France needs Cannes. The festival is the premier source for launching French films, many of which held off on VOD releases in 2020. The Syndicate of Independent Distributors estimated that over 400 films scheduled to come out last year now vie for theatrical releases in 2021. That leaves sales agents scrambling to figure out how to accommodate newer titles, and buyers uncertain how to assess their options. “Obviously, it will not be Cannes 2019,” said one sales agent with a regular presence on the Croisette, “but we all need to feel the fresh air.”
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Critics, programmers, buyers, and sellers who come to the French Riviera will also have to contend with awkward start time for Marché du Film activity. Pre-screeenings will take place online June 21-25, ending a week before the official festival takes hold. “That’s going to be the tricky part this year,” said Emilie Georges, CEO of Memento Films, which is hoping that Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” lands an Official Selection spot. “It’s a very long time. We fear we may lose traction.”
Cannes prohibits market screenings of Official Selection films prior to their festival screenings, and Marché du Film director Jérome Paillard confirmed to IndieWire that the long-standing rule remains intact. Theoretically, agents could set up private screenings or send ad hoc links to buyers, but the Cannes market typically serves as a fire hose for movies that want to reach as many territories as possible. The timing also means a loss of synergy; when the two run in tandem, festival buzz and reviews generates additional market interest. “We will definitely be there if we have films selected,” Georges said, “but we aren’t counting too much on the physical presence of the industry or the buzz created during screenings, which is a shame.”
Some agents plan to place more emphasis on the festival, using the Marché for meetings about projects seeking financial backing. ‘We are planning on running screenings at Cannes,” said Camille Neel, head of international sales at Le Pacte, whose slate may include the high-profile international espionage thriller “Onoda,” among others. “These films deserve to be seen on the big screen and discovered that way, to really give anyone — even buyers who are used to watching them on the computer — a better experience so they can see how magnificent they are.”
That’s easier said than done. The European Union said it plans to allow vaccinated Americans to enter the country by summertime, and Macron recently speculated that a regulation to that effect will happen by May. For now, uncertainty surrounds international travel — especially to a country still struggling through its vaccine rollout. That tamps down Cannes enthusiasm in America. “We’re literally in a global pandemic and Cannes needs a global presence to justify itself,” said one U.S. distributor. “Everything is so in flux.”
Approaches vary. IFC Films recently acquired U.S. distribution for French auteur Jacques Audiard’s black-and-white “Paris, 13th District,” an adaptation of graphic novelist Adrian Tomine’s short stories, but even if the film is selected the company does not plan to attend Cannes. Neon, which is almost certain to have Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria” starring Tilda Swinton in the lineup, has signaled that it will go. A24, which is rumored to have the Noomi Rapace thriller “Lamb” in contention, may follow suit. Amazon and Netflix both have films in contention for slots and plan to have representatives on the ground. Others, from Magnolia to Sony Pictures Classics to Kino Lorber, seem willing to wait things out.
Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber said his company has adapted to virtual markets and online festivals. “Until there’s some recalibration of cost and opportunity on the acquisition and theatrical releasing fronts, we’ll take our time easing back in to international festival participation,” Lorber said. “That said, there’s no question we want to be back on the Croisette, but when it makes dollars and sense.”
Whoever shows up at Cannes, its very existence could fuel an epic comeback effort by the European industry. Earlier this week, the Swiss government gave the Locarno Film Festival permission to hold its treasured outdoor Piazza Grande screenings attended by thousands in August. That festival immediately precedes Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. If those two major European cinephile gatherings happen, followed by Venice and the fall season soon after, the summer will be dense with new films released into the marketplace.
“It’s really part of a restart campaign,” said Match Factory sales head Michael Weber, whose slate of Cannes hopefuls includes “Martin Eden” director Pietro Marcello’s follow-up, “Futura.” “There are so many films waiting in line.”
Weber estimates that he lost 40 percent of his business due to Cannes’ absence last year. He expects that the 2021 festival could make up for much of that. “I can tell you, I still take energy out of the fact that I was in Venice last year,” he said. “I talk with my team about it. We saw how our lives can be impacted by cinema and what you can do when these festivals happen.”
For Cannes sidebar Directors’ Fortnight, artistic director Paolo Moretti said submissions remain on par with previous years. “Everything suggests that we are going in a positive direction,” he said. “We know how quickly the situation can evolve, but for the the moment, there is no reason not to believe it’s going to happen.”
With festival protocols at the mercy of health regulations, a drop in attendance is expected. “Of course, it will not be a normal festival or the one we used to remember,” said Moretti. “There will be some restrictions and we are ready to take them because we believe that making the films exist and creating this event is what the industry needs at the moment.” He also pointed to Venice as a key precedent: “They proved that a festival under COVID can happen, and I think situation in France in July won’t be worse than it was in Italy in September 2020.”
A year ago, Moretti sounded grim when anticipating the possibility of a festival cancellation that eventually happened (“too depressing”). Now, he said the only viable option was to plow ahead. “We are not working on a plan B at the moment,” he said.
Cannes regulars are happy to mix practical analysis with a measure of optimism driven by their desired outcome. “We really are in need of Cannes,” Le Pacte’s Neel said. “It’s like a drug addiction. I need my films on the big screen. We all miss the meetings on the street, that kind of energy, which is so important for the life of the film. The good thing that can exist around a film during a festival like this — nothing else will bring that, no matter what you do.”
An earlier version of this article suggested that the Marché du Film would cease prior to the start of Cannes. While pre-screenings take place June 21-25, the market will place during the festival.