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Cannes Leadership Changes Could Determine the Future of the World’s Greatest Film Festival (Column)

With controversial developments around new bosses at Cannes and Directors' Fortnight, the festival faces major questions about its next chapter.

Crew members install the red carpet at the Palais des Festival ahead of the opening day of the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Crew members install the red carpet at the Palais des Festival ahead of the opening day of the 74th international film festival.


UPDATE: (March 23, 2022): Iris Knobloch has been elected as the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival. See the story below for more details about Knobloch and the conversation leading up to the decision.

The movie calendar can’t seem to find its old rhythm: Oscar season intersects with SXSW and “The Batman” is soaring in a period that was once a box-office dumping ground. But one element is returning to the scene right on schedule and it’s more than welcome in this column: Cannes hype!

While COVID case counts in Europe may be cause for concern, the world’s most glamorous celebration of the art form remains on track for its 75th edition as it returns to its usual May slot. Although the festival won’t announce its selections until April 14, the buzz machine has already begun with Tom Cruise expected to grace the Croisette with his pandemic-delayed “Tom Gun: Maverick” (a full two years after it was originally expected to land there), Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” and George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing.” Meanwhile, festival programmers have been combing through offerings from world-class auteurs like Park Chan-Wook (“Decision to Leave”) and Claire Denis (“The Stars at Noon”).

For all of that comforting familiarity, Cannes also faces instability in the future of its leadership.

On March 23, the festival’s board will select a new president to oversee operations for a three-year term. Pierre Lescure, the 76-year-old former Canal Plus executive, announced last year that he would wind down his role before the end of his third term. Rumors followed that the festival wanted to address mounting concerns about gender disparity by hiring a woman. In recent weeks, former WarnerMedia executive Iris Knobloch has emerged as a top candidate for the job.

To put it mildly, Knobloch would be a controversial choice. Last summer, she left her role as president of WarnerMedia France, Benelux, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to launch I2PO, the first European special purpose acquisition company focused on the entertainment and leisure space. The SPAC reportedly raised 275 million euros when it launched in July, and Knobloch would likely retain that gig if she took on the unpaid and largely symbolic Cannes job. In the French industry, a Cannes leader who could alter the festival in ways that might benefit her own business dealings present an obvious conflict of interest.

There is also the broader discomfort with a recent studio executive bringing a commercial mentality to the Cannes brand. Festival general director Thierry Fremaux oversees the lineup with the confidence of a kingmaker eager to serve the state of the art; Lescure and previous director Gilles Jacob (who served the festival for over 35 years) supported that notion.


Fremaux can take credit for injecting an edgy mentality into Cannes competition, with everything from “Drive” to “Son of Saul” and last year’s “Titane” representing top-notch cinematic mastery that speaks to the power of the medium at its uncompromising best. Some central figures in the tight-knit Cannes community have expressed concerns that a studio mentality would lead to more conservative programming choices antithetical to the festival. Most industry naysayers keep their murmuring to a minimum, fearing reprisal from a festival that wields its ego like a weapon.

Earlier this month, however, veteran producer and Cannes regular Saïd Ben Said — whose recent Cannes credits include “Benedetta,” “Bacurau,” and “Frankie” — tweeted that the festival would be “making a mistake by appointing at the head of cultural institutions people who are certainly very qualified in their field of competence but for whom culture and art are only columns of figures?” I asked him to clarify.

“I think that Iris Knobloch is a respectable figure of the movie business, but I personally believe that the Cannes Film Festival requires a central figure of the cultural world to reassure cinephile audiences and film artists,” Ben Said wrote me by email. “Think of Gilles Jacob, who was a central figure of the growth of art-house cinema and a beloved citizen of the film world, or Pierre Lescure, who was one of the most connected people in the French film landscape.”

Fremaux still runs the program — but Ben Said’s anxiety may relate to the tremendous pressure Cannes faces to modernize. The festival has yet to resolve its ongoing dissonance with Netflix over French theatrical requirements for the movies it screens in competition — a mandate that a recent WarnerMedia executive might want to reassess. This month, the festival announced a new TikTok competition, suggesting a mounting desire to become more accessible to younger generations.

Fremaux’s public position on Cannes programming is necessarily elitist, as mandated by the board and reputation of the festival. Like any festival director, he’s also a horse-trader when needed. However, while one can quibble with competition choices, Cannes has yet to be overrun by a commercial mentality.

Perhaps more troubling than how Knobloch might alter the festival is the way she’s been put up for the job. Multiple reports indicate that Cannes board member Dominique Boutonnat, president of France’s National Film Board (otherwise known as the CNC) and the subject of an ongoing sexual assault investigation, has been lobbying for Knobloch. Boutonnat wields tremendous influence in the CNC, which finances so many aspects of the French film industry that he may as well be the president of the movies, full stop.

“Many people in the French film world were totally astonished when they learned that the president of CNC was trying to impose his candidate without any consultation or discussion with the Cannes film festival board,” Ben Said told me. The board has to vote on its next president, but Boutonnat’s choice can make all the difference.

The festival had no formal comment when I reached out, although Fremaux told me his team was deep in the screening process for the 2022 selection and expected the question of festival leadership to continue to evolve over the next week. However, this is only one outstanding matter surrounding Cannes management with major ramifications for its future and, by extension, the kinds of movies it presents to the world.

In February, news broke that after only three years, Paolo Moretti would end his tenure as artistic director of Cannes’ Directors Fortnight (also known as the Quinzaine) after the 2022 edition; Moretti reportedly expected to stick around much longer. Fortnight has run through three artistic directors over the last 10 years. One reason the autonomous sidebar struggles to maintain leadership continuity is that it has no long-term contracts; the festival head works on an eight-month term that must be renewed every year. Another reason: There’s a revolving door of people who choose the leaders — and they’re all filmmakers.

Since the French Directors Guild started Fortnight in 1969, its destiny has been determined by the directors elected to run that organization, otherwise known as the SRF. Close to 400 French filmmakers are card-carrying SRF members, though only 20 sit on its board. Leaders of this organization come and go every few years. Since the artistic director isn’t given a multi-year contract, all it takes is one changing of the guard unfriendly to the festival head for that person to be shown the door. Unsurprisingly, that has led to tremendous instability and made it difficult to clarify the section’s vision in recent years.

It’s a strange reversal of fortune for Moretti, an amiable, soft-spoken cinephile who runs the arthouse Cinéma La Concorde in Geneva and was previously the director of the La Roche-sur-Yon International Film Festival. Sources tell me Moretti was shocked when the directors of the SRF told him over Zoom last year that they would boot him from the job, supposedly because he programmed the films of two previous SRF members in the festival two years earlier.

These selections, Bertrand Bonello’s “Zombi” and Rebecca Zlotowski’s “An Easy Girl,” were high-profile French titles that seemed like no-brainers. Meanwhile, around half the current board leadership at the SRF submitted their own films to Quinzaine over the last three years and several received rejection letters. Regardless of whether Moretti or the SRF were more compromised by the pressures of the organization, the conflict of interest is embedded in the festival’s structure.

That’s a bummer, because Moretti embodies what one might call the Fortnight spirit. The festival, which typically screens around two dozen titles, began as the brainchild of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and other French-cinema luminaries who were eager to create an artist-first mentality that supported emerging filmmakers otherwise ignored by the lofty official Cannes selection. Beneficiaries in recent years have included everyone from Bong Joon Ho to Lynne Ramsay and the Safdie brothers. They all eventually “graduated” to the official competition.

Moretti was off to a sturdy start in 2019, when the Fortnight launched Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” and Kirill Mikhanovsky’s “Give Me Liberty,” among others. Now, he finds himself in the awkward situation of programming the 2022 edition even as the board interviews candidates for his replacement.

Willem Dafoe, "The Lighthouse"

Willem Dafoe, “The Lighthouse”

A24, Courtesy of Everett Collection

Nothing can salvage Moretti’s job, but the Fortnight deserves retooling to remain the essential Cannes talent platform that hosted early works by Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog, among others. (This lovely trailer showcases many of them.) The organization has announced murky plans to change its agenda, and potentially its name, to foreground the role of filmmakers in the programming process. But that has yet to be determined and could easily change when new SRF management replaces the current board in the coming years.

Fortnight co-president and Begian filmmaker Zoé Wittock, whose 2020 directorial debut “Jumbo” premiered at Sundance, said that board members have discussed the potential conflicts associated with their jobs.

“It’s not in the books specifically, but I myself as a co-president will not be putting my films forward at the Quinzaine,” she told me over the phone this month. “The co-president should not show their films. This is a more recent idea we’ve come up with, but asking all the SFR filmmakers not to present their films at the Quinzaine would take out more than half the French industry and that would be really unfair.” Wittock also said the possibility of putting the next artistic director on a multi-year contract was “being discussed.”

It’s possible that, like the official Cannes board, the SRF may look to hire the first woman to run its program in decades. The rumor mill suggests qualified candidates such as veteran programmer and former Unifrance deputy Aurélie Godet and Belfort International Film Festival director Elsa Charbit. Whoever gets the gig faces a dicey challenge: Do they get to choose movies on the basis of their own curatorial instincts, or are they at the mercy of filmmakers eager to support their own work?

Fortnight could help this issue along in two crucial ways: In addition to the multi-year contract, it could use a board member who actually financed the operation. Fortnight’s backer is — wait for it — the CNC, the same organization headed by the scandal-stricken man pushing for a changing of the guard at the bigger festival.

Still, the festival could benefit from oversight that involves both filmmakers and industry. (Both entities benefit from its survival.) With its manageable ticketing system, Fortnight is also celebrated as an access point for general audiences who might not otherwise be able to access the insular Cannes community: It’s a gateway for the next generation of cinephiles.

Above all else, France needs these festival components to thrive because they sustain the country’s own revered film culture, but the global film community should track these changes as well. Cannes remains the most prominent entity capable of launching all kinds of movies in search of their ideal audiences around the world. Year after year, buyers from every viable territory gather there eager to explore their options. This is the festival where a three-and-a-half hour police procedural from Turkey can premiere alongside Star Wars movies and the Coen brothers. No other event on Earth fights for an eclectic future of cinema with more passion or such scale.

Beneath these managerial questions lies a greater anxiety about the future of the programming field. Cannes is one of the few large-scale efforts to foreground aesthetic achievements in tandem with commercial ones. That’s a rare gift to filmmakers keen on making movies instead of products. Cannes needs good bosses who respect the authenticity of the programming process; film culture does, too. Otherwise, the program could collapse into a mishmash of conflicting agendas. It could easily go from the Cannes Film Festival to the Content Film Festival — and anyone can program one of those from the comfort of their own homes.

In previous editions of this column, I’ve addressed how festivals can sustain movies that operate well outside of marketplace demands, and can even push the market in exciting new directions. Cannes has the power to advocate for the survival of the art no matter what the market happens to say. Its programming embodies the state of the business and challenges it at the same time. That mentality demands a clear vision from the top.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m overstating the relevance of Cannes as the festival circuit continues to adapt to a brave new world and adventurous distributors consider new ways of reaching audiences. Does the future of the movies really need one festival to rule them all? I encourage readers to reach out with their own takes on this evolving situation: eric@indiewire.com

Browse previous columns here.

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