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Cannes 2021: Thierry Frémaux on Netflix, Gender Parity, and Safety Protocols at This Year’s Festival

With the programming announcement days away, the festival director addressed key changes in this year's lineup and answered major organizational questions.

Thierry Fremaux poses in front of the Palais des festival after the Best Short Film Palme D'Or Award Ceremony of the "Special Cannes 2020 : Le Festival Revient Sur La Croisette !" as part of the Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on October 29, 2020 in Cannes, France. (Sipa via AP Images)

Thierry Fremaux poses in front of the Palais des festival after the Best Short Film Palme D’Or Award Ceremony of the “Special Cannes 2020 : Le Festival Revient Sur La Croisette!” in October.

Laurent VU/SIPA

The entertainment industry has undergone dramatic changes over the past year, and the future is uncertain, but the Cannes Film Festival is ready to get back in action. Like most mass gatherings, the world’s most glamorous film event went dormant last year, releasing an amorphous selection of films but no festival to play them. (Films branded as “Cannes 2020” titles did eventually play at other festivals, including TIFF and Sundance.) The 2021 edition is a different story. While France was in no shape to host a crowded international media event in the usual spring corridor, the festival is messaging confidence about its plans to take place July 6 – July 17. This Thursday at 11 a.m. GMT, festival director Thierry Frémaux is planning to unveil an international selection of films just as he would any other year.

And as usual, he’s down to the wire. Frémaux and his selection team have been in and out of screening rooms in the days leading up to the announcement as they work toward finalizing a program that so far looks like a lot of Cannes editions from previous years: Celebrated filmmakers from around the world interspersed with newcomers, starry titles alongside daring creative gambles, lots of debate about the future of cinema. The sun may be beating down a bit harder on the French Riviera during the summertime, but Cannes is marching on.

Still, like everything in these strange times, this year’s festival will not look like previous editions. Many members of the press and industry continue to vacillate on their attendance plans, uncertain if the selection or organization of the festival will make the trip worthwhile. Now, Frémaux is ready to make the case. In conversations via email, Frémaux answered a range of questions about the practical challenges of planning Cannes 2021 as he looked ahead toward this week’s program announcement. He also revealed plans for a new section, clarified the festival’s approach to gender parity issues, and addressed his ongoing talks with Netflix. Stay tuned for the lineup and further analysis on Thursday.

How would you say the purpose of Cannes has been changed over the past year?

Throughout its history, and throughout the last year, Cannes has kept the same goal: to bring cinema to life, protect artists, showcase the stars and help the industry, all in a global environment. It’s a universal vision. Cinema is never uniform, it changes, it mutates, and all festivals must adapt. Cannes is also adapting in order to remain the biggest event in the world.

There has never been a more challenging moment for the future of cinema on the big screen. How will this year’s edition advocate for its survival?

Cannes supports cinema, and cinema requires theaters. We could have had a virtual festival, and we didn’t, because it would have trivialized the event. Cannes canceled in 2020. It was better to go down in history that way than with a few screenings on the internet to make people believe that we exist. The cinema has not had its last word yet. The multiplication of platforms all over the world will mean that the more time passes, the more the screenings in theaters with the public will show their particular strength. The theaters are the best advocates of themselves. It’s a constant spectacle! The reopening in France and elsewhere was triumphant. The answer came from industry and the public. It’s a happy answer and one that makes us very optimistic.

With major European festivals coming just a few weeks after Cannes — Locarno, Karlovy Vary, and Venice — how are you dealing with films that might want to wait a bit longer to be ready for a festival premiere?

I did not observe any reluctance. People want to come to Cannes, as usual. Of course, some films have decided to be born in the second half of the year for more security. This mainly concerns American films.

Will you require all attendees to be vaccinated to attend screenings?

Vaccination is not mandatory, but testing is. Spectators can choose to present either a vaccination certificate or a negative test. Basically, to access the Palais, people will have to present a valid health pass to enter the screenings. The validity of the pass is acquired via either a complete vaccination course, or immunity acquired more than 15 days and less than 6 months ago, or a negative PCR or antibodies test within a 48-hour window.

What percentage of seats will be in use at venues?

In France, it will be 100 percent from June 30, so Cannes will benefit from using all our seats. Of course, you will still have to take care of your neighbors, respect personal barriers, social distancing. And in the rooms, the masks will be required. The pandemic is not yet over, so we will have to be careful.

How much international attendance are you currently anticipating?

Cannes 2021 will be a very international festival. We have received a lot of films. Usually, it’s around 1,800; this year, we got almost 2,300 feature films.

How will the size of the lineup reflect these strange times? Will it be a smaller than usual?

Actually, it will be slightly larger. During the lockdown, filming in France and elsewhere never stopped. In fact, there are a lot of productions. We’re looking at over a year and a half of international productions. So the selection will not be reduced at all.

How will Cannes manage to show films to critics who cannot attend? Will there be any sort of online presence for press screenings or no digital screenings at all?

For international critics who cannot travel, we are investigating whether press screenings are possible in some major cities, in agreement with the producers. But there will be no digital screenings — at least not for the public. Some festivals make a lot of money with virtual tickets, but we will not practice what seems to us to be contrary to our convictions. A festival is a living spectacle. Cannes is Woodstock for cinema every year!

Will there be social events at night? Dinners instead of parties?

It is still too early to answer because there are six weeks left. But on the pandemic front, good news arrives every day. We continue to keep our fingers crossed. Dinners are less dangerous than cocktails. The restaurants are open. I’m from Lyon. I’ve always preferred dinner over cocktails.

How will the festival pivot to acknowledge an ongoing pandemic that will by July likely be hitting non-Western/under-vaccinated countries hardest? Is there a diplomatic way to bring foreign delegations for films from countries more impacted, like India or Mexico?

The festival will respect French law, which is also European law and international law. All of our conversations with foreign delegations are heading in the right direction. Everyone wants to make the effort to come. Nothing will be easy, because some people will be forced to quarantine, but it will be worth it.

What will a big Cannes red carpet premiere look like this year? How will it differ from previous years?

It will be the same red carpet, with festival goers, photographers and film crews. [Cannes president] Pierre Lescure and I will be at the top of the stairs to welcome them. The medical experts even say that the masks could be removed outside! We are not there yet.

Some industry people have asked me this: Why not limit the 2021 in-person festival to “local” audiences and invite the world back in grand fashion in 2022?

Waiting until 2022 is not our way of seeing it. The circuit has already launched: It starts in July 2021 in Cannes and will continue with our colleagues at the summer and autumn festivals. Even Jerry Schatzberg, Palme d’Or winner in 1973 for “Scarecrow” — he’s 94 years old, arguably the oldest working director — he told me he wanted to be there for the return of the party in Cannes in July 2021.

How many women filmmakers do you expect to program in the lineup? If you don’t know yet, can you address whether you feel like you have sufficient options from the lineup to address concerns about gender parity?

Film festival jury members Andre Maurois, Olivia de Havilland and Rex Harrison pose on the roof of the festival hall at Cannes, France, May 13, 1965. (AP Photo/Jean-Jacques Levy)

Film festival jury members Andre Maurois, Olivia de Havilland and Rex Harrison pose on the roof of the festival hall at Cannes, France, May 13, 1965

AP

As you know, the festival is very involved in the defense of gender equality. This is a fundamental conviction that is also shared by CNC [France’s National Centre Cinema and the Moving Image] and the government, associations, filmmakers unions, etc. We are going to show a documentary on Olivia de Havilland, the first woman to have been President of the Jury, in 1965. Whenever it has the power, the festival ensures parity, in its tributes, in its juries, in its invitations. Regarding the Official Selection: Since 1946, we have not applied any criteria other than that of the works, not the gender of the artists. However, in the event of a tie in the programming process between two films, we will opt for the one directed by a woman. But there is still immense progress to be made. In many countries, the presence of women is not strong enough. The good news this year is for French cinema, in which we see real progress. I hope the Selection can attest to that.

So far, Jane Campion is the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or. She has a new film, “The Power of the Dog,” but it’s Netflix. How are you approaching the process of programming a film that Cannes would obviously want to play?

After Fellini won the Palme d’Or, he returned to Cannes, still out of competition. So, I dreamed that Jane would come back with her “Netflix movie” out of competition. Out of competition is a nice entry to Cannes, an often brilliant party. Remember that Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” were both out of competition. If its leaders agree, Netflix will come back through the front door and be wonderfully received. Part of the future of images is in their hands. They must be present in Cannes.

How has your conversation with Netflix evolved this year?

Jane Campion

We are having a positive dialogue. For the moment, the company does not accept the Cannes rules, which are precise: the films in the competition must be distributed in French theaters. We want the Palme d’Or to be seen by all spectators in any cinema in the world. But the decision is up to them.

Our belief is that after a year of widespread disaster for theaters around the world, as platforms triumphed — and often with brilliant films from directors from theaters — both symbolic and concrete support for theaters is more necessary than ever.

What kind of obligation does Cannes have to France this year, given that there are so many French films that did not come out in 2020?

There are a lot of movies everywhere. We give ourselves no obligation but we will take into account the richness of international cinema that we have observed this year.

Set the record straight on “The French Dispatch.” First it was in the 2020 selection, then you said it was in the 2021 selection, then you said that because of its fall release date it might not be in. Now, we’re hearing it’s in again.

We saw “The French Dispatch” last year because Searchlight and Wes Anderson already wanted to come to Cannes. It took a year. They hesitated, but have finally decided to come to the red carpet of the Croisette. We are very happy to have them. A decision is always taken by several. Searchlight is loyal to Cannes. I want to salute the work of the entire Searchlight team.

You have already said that Un Certain Regard is going to be focused on younger filmmakers this year. How will this impact the Camera d’Or prize? Will there be more first films competing for it?

Not especially. This is a Certain Regard composed solely of auteur films, daring formal proposals, not necessarily first films. On the other hand, in the Debussy, we are opening a new section called Cannes Première, where filmmakers will be able to come and present their films, without stakes, in the middle of the Official Selection, in a beautiful room, but without having to be in competition.

How is that different from the Out of Competition section?

It’s in Debussy Theater, so the spirit is not the same as Lumiere. It’s really like, “Hey, I’m here, I’m a filmmaker, here is my film.”

How is that different from the Lumiere? Less pressure?

Yes, and it will be people who’ve been already in competition, which means they’ll be there without any backlash or questions about their stature.

What benefits do you see for films premiering at Cannes in July as opposed to the usual May slot?

It’s such a special year, so it’s hard to make any predictions. It’s true that we are closer to fall. A year ago, we accompanied the 2020 Selection films that we were unable to show in the Palais to other festivals. The experience was so enriching that we are going to continue it through our collaborations with the Deauville festival, the San Sebastian festival, and the Lumière festival.

Will Cannes go to back to May in 2022?

Yes, of course. Other than the July dates for 2021, the only other period of time we discussed was going back to September like the 1950s. But there are a lot of festivals in the fall!

Since this will be the first festival since “Parasite” became a phenomenon — winning the Palme d’Or ahead of its successful Best Picture campaign — how do you think this year’s films might impact the awards season to come?

Bong Joon-Ho'Parasite' premiere, 66th Sydney Film Festival, Australia - 15 Jun 2019

Bong Joon Ho

Richard Milnes/Shutterstock

In 2019, we were very proud of the journey of “Parasite,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and Pedro Almodóvar, just as in the past with “No Country for Old Men,” “Mystic River,” “Pulp Fiction,” etc. Last April, we were immensely happy that “Another Round” won the Oscar for Best International Film, and with the success of “Soul.” Both were part of the Cannes selection. I have a passion for the Oscars and I can’t wait to visit the new Academy museum, designed by architect Renzo Piano and the Academy team. This is a great lesson for cinephiles around the world.

But Cannes is not particularly concerned with the “awards season,” which is an American obsession. Ours is world cinema, and the young writers to come.

Spike Lee is the jury president. This has been established for over a year. When will we find out about the rest of the jury?

Soon. Around June 10, I think. We will also be announcing the name of the guest of honor at the opening ceremony soon. It is of great importance to us.

As the head of the Lumiere Institute, how do you think film historians will look back on this past year and the way it impacted cinema?

This is a very interesting question — perhaps the big question of the decade. A major crisis has taken place — in addition to being a health crisis, it is also a cultural crisis, a social crisis, and an intimate crisis. The virtualization of the world is underway: We could no longer go to restaurants, so we ordered our pizzas at home; we could no longer go to the cinema, so we watched films on our small screens. The cinema has already faced many “attacks”: television in the 1950s, the arrival of video in the 1980s, VHS and DVD, then the internet in the 2000s and now platforms. It always knew how to react. The only difference in this situation was that before, when new adversaries arrived, cinema adapted, it changed, it evolved. But when all the rooms were closed, it could not change, it could not defend itself.

Cinema is going to have to learn from all of this. The reopening of theaters was splendid, but once the euphoria of that has passed, we will have to be very careful to preserve the movies. Fortunately, the cinema has powerful advocates: directors, screenwriters, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors. World cinema is infinitely rich. No one has forgotten the exquisite feeling of going to see a movie on the big screen. No one wants to lose that.

Last question: Can we wear shorts with our tuxedos? It’s going to be so hot!

So hot but so good!

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