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Cannes Faces the Future: Inside the $20 Million Effort to Save Arthouse Cinema

Cannes head Thierry Fremaux constantly defends the festival and its role at the center of world cinema — but to what end?

Festival workers pull the official poster into place at the Grand Theatre Lumiere during preparations for the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 15, 2022. The Cannes film festival runs from May 17th until May 28th 2022. (AP Photo/Dejan Jankovic)

Festival workers pull the official poster into place at the Grand Theatre Lumiere during preparations for the 75th Cannes Film Festival


Every year, the Cannes Film Festival sets the tone with a single image. The festival’s official poster adorns every street lamp along the Croisette and stretches out across the vast canvas of the entrance to the Lumiere Theatre. Sometimes it salutes a filmmaker (Agnes Varda, Spike Lee) and sometimes it takes the wider approach (in 2007, Wong Kar Wai brushed shoulders with Pedro Almodovar and Samuel L. Jackson). Whatever message it sends gets burned into the industry’s consciousness over 10 days as if the international cinema it celebrates was the true center of the universe. 

This year, the poster acknowledges a strange new world. Borrowing a frame from the climax of “The Truman Show,” when Jim Carrey’s sheltered protagonist finally reaches the artificial boundaries of the world he’s taken for granted most of his life, the poster seems to acknowledge that the the next chapter of the movies is a wide-open question that even Cannes itself can’t resolve. “The future is wide open for cinema,” festival head Thierry Fremaux told IndieWire via email on the eve of the festival. “I am sure of that.” 

Fremaux himself reflects the paradoxes of Cannes at a pivotal turning point for both the festival and the art form it represents. He’s a passionate advocate for the concept of an elitist festival that showcases the best new movies in the world — and the belligerent embodiment of its resistance to change. That takes many forms. The festival has resisted quotas for female directors and alienated major streaming platforms with its rules about competition titles requiring a theatrical release in France. At a press conference, he shrugged off reports that he attempted to censor his interviews with other publications as “a French tradition” and “not a big deal.” More than that, he added, “I don’t want to keep on speaking in a dead, wooden language,” he said. “I speak openly for the story, and ask them to keep this or not that, or phrase something in a better way.”

This may sound like an alarming assault on the First Amendment (a law that does not exist in France), but Fremaux’s stance says more about Cannes’ preference for the brand it wants to project than anything the world wants to project onto it. Cannes exists primarily as a platform for arthouse cinema, a struggling business everywhere, and Fremaux’s image-conscious strategy is an attempt to combat that narrative of decline. The festival is a form of cinephilia propaganda.

I first interviewed Fremaux in 2011 from his office in the Palais des Festivals, where he maintained a similar confidence about the stature of the festival. “Cannes does not compete with anyone,” he said. “Cannes is Cannes.” Over the years, he became more cautious about how he spoke on behalf of the festival, and began to insist on answering questions only via email, though he made a few exceptions (including a conversation about Harvey Weinstein at his Lyon-based Lumiere Festival). That reticence coincided with the rise of streaming entities endangering the future of the arthouse theatrical market, as well as cultural imperatives for better representation in festival programming that have made it harder to evade challenges from the media about programming choices. Still, I have found Fremaux to be responsive about questions regarding festival shortcomings, regardless of his eccentric communication preferences.

He also spins and defends at all costs. He will never say that the festival could improve or that there’s more work to be done. At the press conference, when pressed on the lack of gender parity in the competition, he insisted that “progress has been made,” with “Titane” director Julia Ducournau winning the Palme d’Or in 2021. On the absence of African directors from the festival in competition, he highlighted “up-and-coming” directors showcased in sidebars. Via email, he characterized any year-to-year assessment of the programming as beside the point. “It is impossible to do analysis over a single year,” he said. “It would take at least five years. And we could see I think that over five years, over 10 years, many filmmakers were born in Cannes.”

Where does this hubris come from? Fremaux acts at the behest of the Cannes board, a powerful assemblage of industry insiders that includes exhibitors and the head of the National Center for Cinema, the main financing body for film projects in France that operates within the French Ministry of Culture. These entities support virtually every aspect of the business and depend on its success. Fremaux’s overconfidence about the resilience of Cannes, a festival that treats movies as invincible, stems from an ecosystem steeped in that same bravado. 

Still, Fremaux has a new boss with incoming president Irish Knobloch, the German-born former WarnerMedia executive who will take over from Pierre Lescure after this year. Knobloch may be inclined to pressure Cannes to embrace the streaming market and accelerate diversity initiatives if the market calls for it. Meanwhile, there are signs of other pressures on the festival beyond the traditional industry. This year’s sponsorship from TikTok has brought a new generation of influencers to the festival who haven’t been born into a world where cinema reigns supreme. They may be watching the same movies as everyone else, but don’t necessarily take their cultural supremacy for granted. That’s the true battle for relevance Cannes must face as it attempts to acknowledge changes without letting them overtake its core identity.

Festival delegate general Thierry Fremaux, left, and festival president Pierre Lescure attend a press conference to announce the Cannes film festival line up for the upcoming 75th edition, Thursday, April 14, 2022 in Paris. The International Cannes Film Festival will run from May 17 to 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Festival delegate general Thierry Fremaux and festival president Pierre Lescure attend a press conference to announce the 2022 Cannes lineup


The Cannes budget averages out to around $20 million euros, half of which comes from public funds. (Compare that to the $150,000 that the Sundance Institute got from the NEA this year.) Since the French government sinks roughly $10 million euros into the festival, those taxpayer dollars directly tie into the festival’s priorities. One question Fremaux declined to answer via email was about the divisiveness of the recent French presidential election and it’s easy to see why: the future of Cannes is tied to the government’s investment in its existence.

Cannes itself is a content machine that keeps expanding in scope. While its opening ceremony has been broadcast across the country on Canal+ for years, that relationship has been replaced by a much larger one with FranceTV, the public television network that broadcasts in all French-language territories. With this vast set of eyeballs on the festival, Cannes operates with a kind of civic responsibility toward the industry, and uses it to put on a flashy show. Arthouse movies may seem like small potatoes from a U.S. perspective, but Cannes amplifies their potential for the global market. That potential is what the festival serves. Much as politicians operate at the whims of their constituents, at Cannes the demands of the media and film culture are secondary to the needs of the industry. When Fremaux speaks, he seeks to formulate the perspective of the French film industry as the ultimate gateway for the survival of cinema around the world.

To that end, the competition section is designed to showcase potentially commercial arthouse films in tandem with the wider industry. Despite qualms over representation in the programming, the expansiveness of the films on offer continues to impress. In just the first few days, audiences can take in everything from a conversation with Tom Cruise to a restoration of “The Mother and the Whore,” plus new films from the likes of James Grey and Jerzy Skolimowski alongside newcomers like Lola Quivoron (“Rodeo”) and Marie Kreutzer (“Corsage”). And then there’s the market, which also aims to sustain the future of arthouse cinema. The Marché du Film announced that over 12,000 film professionals from more than 110 countries will attend the market this year. Around 1,200 films will host market screenings for international buyers. “What we see is that the market is really concentrating a lot of A-list films,” said Jerome Paillard, who ends his run as head of the Marché this year after more than 25 years. 

As for the Official Selection, the mandate to focus on films that seem like they have an existing audience means it favors established auteurs — from the Dardenne brothers to Cristian Mungiu in this year’s lineup — and that makes it difficult for up-and-comers to break in. However, Fremaux noted that several filmmakers make their premieres in competition this year: Tarik Saleh, Lukas Dhont, Léonor Serraille, Albert Serra, Felix van Groeningen, Charlotte Vandermeesch, and Saeed Roustayi.

When it comes to the minimal progress for women directors at the festival, Fremaux tends to point to Un Certain Regard and the overall 25 percent figure of this year’s lineup that shows undeniable progress. The competition, he insists, is not the whole story. “The mission of the festival is to discover,” he wrote via email. “Cannes devotes itself to this as much as possible.” But many of these filmmakers achieve a fair amount of success in other Cannes sections before cracking the competition. The festival invents its own hierarchy: The competition doesn’t really discover filmmakers so much as cultivate its own internal network. That has been the way filmmakers — men and women alike — have made their way into the most revered part of the Cannes lineup over the years, from Ducournau to Celine Sciamma and Claire Denis. And as Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week continue to showcase programs that are close to gender parity, these directors may very well make their way into competition in the coming years.

Programming that section is also a complex game of politics and horse-trading with sales agents down to the last minute — and sometimes a few minutes past that. The competition was announced in early April with several competition slots still wide open. “We want to make the best selection possible and so we give ourselves the possibility of adding films at the last minute,” Fremaux said, noting the shortened window between festivals this year, given that the previous edition was delayed until July 2021. 

“We have only had 10 months to prepare the festival,” he said. “Many films arrived very late. We allow such delays when possible.” He then circled to a history lesson. “Let’s not forget that, according to festival legend, films arriving at the last minute often have a fantastic destiny,” he said. Late additions to competition have included everything from Andrzej Wadja’s “Man of Iron” to Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Taste of Cherry,” Laurent Cantet’s “The Class,” and Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square,” all of which went on to win the Palme d’Or. 

The last-minute nature of the programming also has a trickle-down effect. It means that programmers at the autonomous Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week had to wait until the last minute to finalize their own lineups as filmmakers waited to hear from the Official Selection. When Fremaux takes his time, everyone else does, too. “We took what we could, but we had plenty of first choices,” Directors’ Fortnight head Paolo Moretti told me over coffee near his office in Cannes. “There were films we watched that we thought were wonderful and assumed they would go to competition, which would be fine. But then it didn’t happen.” 

He declined to specify titles but said a certain size of film, from filmmakers on their second or third feature, seemed more inclined to “graduate” to the competition ranks. But if a competition-worthy film doesn’t get a competition slot, it still has a shot at getting into Cannes somewhere. If Fremaux and his own programming team thinks a movie is strong enough to play at the festival but might not generate enough heat to play in competition, they might position it for Un Certain Regard or another section.

But some films might prefer to take advantage of the wider ecosystem. When “The Lighthouse” was offered a midnight slot in the Official Selection in 2019, A24 chose to take it to Director’s Fortnight instead. “Every film is associated with a strategy,” Moretti said, adding that while programming starts in the fall, 75 percent of the films under consideration for all sections in Cannes are screened in March, just a few weeks before decisions were finalized. Many of the films in this year’s selection, including Lea Mysius’ surreal motherhood thriller “The Five Devils” and Mark Jenkins’ UK noir “Enys Men,” bear the mark of emerging auteurs on a steady path to cracking the competition. And since they haven’t gotten there yet, Directors’ Fortnight swooped in.

“We basically spend a month and a half building a huge map of probabilities,” he said. “We just get ready to react to whatever the landscape might be after the official press conference.” Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. “It’s the logic of things,” he said. “The Fortnight has access to these films because of the Official Selection. We aren’t pulling together $20 million euros for this event to exist like the Official Selection is.”

Fremaux, meanwhile, gets his pick — with a few exceptions. The programmer said he hoped to show two Netflix films in competition this year: Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde” and Alejandro Iñarritu’s “Bardo,” both of which are expected to surface in the fall. (Netflix always wanted to hold Dominik’s film for that corridor, but “Bardo” isn’t finished.) Netflix continues to avoid Cannes even as Fremaux attempts to lure films from the streamer, striking a conciliatory tone — again, an extension of the festival’s industry-first mentality. In recent years, even the French industry has grown more comfortable with the supremacy of streaming platforms, and last year Netflix committed to investing $45 million annually in French productions.

“I subscribe to all the platforms,” Fremaux said. “It is an invention with formidable efficiency for the cinema. … Going to war with them would be a mistake.”

He was more open-ended about the impact of Cannes on the Oscar conversation. While the fall may be the most obvious starting point for awards-season hopefuls, Cannes has quietly become a potential launchpad for unexpected contenders like last year’s “Drive My Car,” which went on to become the first Japanese film to secure a Best Picture nomination. Several of this year’s films stand a chance at becoming their countries’ Oscar submissions.

“I hope that will continue in 2023,” Fremaux said, beaming over the way “Drive My Car” gradually built support via word of mouth in the months after its Cannes launch. “We knew we had a great movie there that needed to steep like tea,” he said. “Over time, its importance has grown enormously.”

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Gilbert Flores for Variety

Programming these films may intrigue distributors worldwide, but they don’t guarantee stars on the red carpet. Typically, Fremaux addresses this shortcoming with films out of competition, like this year’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” and with a few stars on the jury. He confirmed that this year’s jury was originally supposed to be headed by Penelope Cruz, not French actor Vincent Lindon.

“It’s true,” Fremaux said. “We wanted Penelope Cruz to be president of the jury, but her schedule did not allow her. She makes very beautiful films where she is dazzling, and that is even more important than being part of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival.” 

Once again, the emphasis is on the survival of the movies. The festival will dedicate one day to saluting the festival’s 75th anniversary and another to acknowledging the crisis in Ukraine. “Cinemas must also prepare for the future,” Fremaux said. “They have always known how to reinvent themselves, and they will do so again.”

Many people at Cannes this week looked into the future and saw only chaos. When a server went down a day before the start of the festival, its online ticketing platform did, too. This left the festival scrambling to sort out ticketing allotments for the industry in tandem with the demands of the press, which is considerably larger than it was in 2021. Last year’s July event brought around 1,300 media to the festival; this year, that figure is closer to 3,500, approaching pre-pandemic numbers. No matter what happens with Cannes, it still commands media interest and the pressure to deliver cinematic excitement at scale.

Given the uncertainty of the current moment, Fremaux is on sturdiest ground when speaking in general terms —about his enthusiasm for the art form, and the survival of the theatrical experience.

“Cinema, for me, is the pleasure of being together and alone,” he wrote via email. “It’s the big screen of a multiplex and the small screen of an arthouse, the real life and the dream life. It’s where I turn when I am no longer certain of being happy in this trembling world, where ‘social networks’ destroy ‘social relations’ and where, in broad daylight, a great country is at war with another great country. We are all going to make a beautiful festival together without ever stopping to think about all that.” Somewhere in there is a sentiment most Cannes audiences can appreciate. 

Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.

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