Move Over, Tom Cruise: Here’s How We Can Get More American Movies in Cannes (Column)

Among the 47 films announced for Cannes this year, only four are American. Filmmakers could address this disconnect by going global.
Actor Tom Cruise applauds at Will Smith's hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theater Monday, Dec. 10, 2007, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Tom Cruise

Alongside the diminishing returns of “Fantastic Beasts” and the hype for the staggering Viking epic “The Northman,” this week’s news cycle brought news of potential cinephile goldmines, aka the Cannes Film Festival lineup. Already it looks like a vintage year, with new movies from David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, Cristian Mungiu, and Park Chan-wook. 

Still, in terms of pure red-carpet optics, Cannes locked its ace-in-the-hole two years ago when it planned to screen “Top Gun: Maverick” out of competition at its canceled edition. At long last, Tom Cruise will walk the red carpet of the Lumiere Theatre for the first time since 1992, when he appeared for Ron Howard’s “Far and Away.” The Cannes launch (which follows a world premiere at CinemaCon) means even people for whom the pronunciation of “Cannes” is as mysterious as its program will catch a whiff of the media excitement around May 18. 

Cruise’s Cannes presence should project confidence about the future of movies, but American films remain a Cannes anomaly. While Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux and his team continue to assemble the program (and hey, maybe even a few more women directors), the 47 titles to date don’t have much to say about U.S. cinema. The four from this country are Warner Bros.’ “Elvis” (Baz Luhrmann’s Australian production of an American icon’s biopic); Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up” (A24); James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” (Focus); and “Beast,” the directorial debut of Riley Keough and Gina Gammell set on the Pine Ridge reservation.

That’s business as usual at Cannes, which favors European auteurs new and old. But if Cannes is a portal to the greatest cinema of the moment — a goal worth fighting for — its selections beg the question of what it would take for more American movies to gain the festival’s recognition. 

Part of this has to do with nature of America, where state money doesn’t drive filmmaking and few American directors parlay early career success into delivering multiple masterpieces. The Safdie brothers and Ari Aster aren’t rare birds in a sea of mediocrity; American directors whose careers take off are more likely to work on preexisting IP or on TV. They might create strong work and make a good living, but this process doesn’t prioritize singular artistry.

My recommendation: American directors should start thinking like Europeans. Make movies there, or in other parts of the world, with government incentives. This is not a radical proposition; studios do it all the time to take advantage of tax credits and scenic backdrops. Look at new releases on any given week: “Fantastic Beasts” was shot in the UK and “The Northman” used Northern Ireland to stand in for Iceland.

At the other edge of the budgetary spectrum, few American movies take advantage of Europe’s advanced co-production markets. Producers often chase American agencies that don’t necessarily prioritize emerging filmmakers unless they appeal to the stars in their roster. That’s a missed opportunity. Instead, “actors with production companies could go back to partnering with better producers,” producer Mynette Louie wrote on Twitter in response to my reporting on this issue, “ones with an eye for new talent.”

Or, producers could plead their case to international production companies that know state financing by positioning their projects in global terms. Don’t just use Europe as a stand-in for some American setting; set the movie abroad.

Even so, some filmmakers might feel territorial about U.S. directors trying to take a piece of other countries’ pie. But international producers I contacted told me they would welcome more American filmmakers giving it a shot.

Workers sets up a giant 65th Cannes Film Festival official poster featuring Marilyn Monroe on the Cannes Festival Palace, Monday, May 14, 2012. The Cannes Film Festival will start on Wednesday, May 16.(AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Workers sets up a giant 65th Cannes Film Festival official poster featuring Marilyn Monroe on the Cannes Festival Palace, Monday, May 14, 2012. The Cannes Film Festival will start on Wednesday, May 16.AP

“If you have a movie set in America, we could make the movie partly in Europe to use the funds available here,” Match Factory’s Michael Weber told me. The veteran producer and sales agent found International resources for Cannes hits like “Memoria,” which Thailand’s Apicatpong Weerasethakul shot in Colombia with a British star, Tilda Swinton.

“It shouldn’t only be big action movies that go to Eastern Europe,” said Weber, who added that he has been in touch with some American companies about bringing more productions into the continent. Last year, he partnered with ICM to help sell key Cannes films and was hoping to bolster that relationship.

In last week’s column, I explored the challenge of getting veteran American actors involved with emerging directorial talent. Based on reader feedback, I’ll admit that Jim Carrey’s career trajectory might not be the best template for assessing the problem. After all, as one well-placed source told me, it’s not like he wasn’t given opportunities to work with “The Northman” director Robert Eggers, the Safdies, and others. Some actors may not get as excited over an audacious new storyteller the way nutty festival addicts do. The American system often needs a measure of fame to get conversations going.

“We need a viable public funding system in the U.S. for low-budget and emerging movies so we don’t have to depend on movie stars,” critic and director Gabe Klinger emailed me in response to last week’s piece. Klinger made his narrative debut “Porto,” a romantic two-hander that served as the last Anton Yelchin’s last feature, with European funds.

However, the NEA provides only modest support to small arthouses and film organizations, some of whom offer grants — rarely enough to sustain entire productions. It might be more constructive to peruse the sales companies with track records at Cannes — in addition to the Match Factory, there’s MK2, Wild Bunch, and many others — to grasp just how much opportunity there is when U.S. money is not part of the equation. 

State money also helps get around the recurring pressure to find the most bankable stars, and boy, that needs to happen. Canadian director Thomas Robert Lee wrote me to report that his 2020 folk horror effort “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” got in front of major actors due to its promising script, an evocative period piece that suggested “The Wicker Man” by way of Sofia Coppola. However, he said, financiers and sales agents balked at the cast he wanted.

“They would routinely make suggestions based on how many Instagram followers an actor had,” he said. “It was insanely frustrating.”

He ended up making the movie with actors he could get for $1.3 million. “I’m in the process of taking my new project to market, but I’m honestly still shell-shocked and terrified that I’ll end up partnering with another financier who values Instagram followers over making a film that could play at festivals like Cannes,” he said. 

It’s a not-unreasonable fear. The presence of TikTok as a 2022 Cannes sponsor is a stark reminder that movies have become only a small fragment of a vast media equation. American movies that want to survive this existential crisis might be best served by giving up on the idea of being American movies at all. 

Of course, the global star system also plays a role in pre-selling foreign territories and even government-financed projects face the pressures of fickle financiers. Is there a better path to getting American movies financed domestically that I haven’t touched on? As long as your answer isn’t “hire Tom Cruise,” I encourage you to write me with your own solutions:

Browse previous columns here.

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