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Cannes Film Festival 2014: Has the Fest Lost its Street Cred?

A piece over at European CEO wonders whether this is, in fact, true. Jean Luc-Godard said of the fest, “Now, it’s just for publicity. People come to Cannes just to advertise their films.”  Perhaps that is truer today than it’s ever been as the entire year feels like one rolling publicity tour for the same handful of films.  It used to be that the PR train stopped with the Oscars for a while. Cinema would then be in the dead zone for a few months until the summer movie season hit.  But now, with Captain American pushing up summer movies to April, and Cinemacon already starting the necessary fluffing, then Cannes, then  Comic-Con just around the corner and after that Telluride, it begs the question whether there really is any break anymore.  Of course, who can complain when it’s so difficult to get any movies funded now – especially movies that aren’t pre-branded with our overly branded culture.  Any championing of films like Under the Skin and Only Lovers Left Alive is good.  Those movies were supposedly part of the PR train from last season but now are enjoying some singularity with all of the Oscar movies out of the way.

From my seat, Cannes is one of the few stops left that truly celebrates diverse, worthy filmmaking from all over the world. It isn’t just the main competition (which, I have to say, always blows my stupid American brain right the fuck away) but everything else going on at Cannes – the producers workshops, the short films, the networking between up and coming filmmakers and potential financiers.  It isn’t just about promotion but about opportunity – as long as you can get there.

However, according to British filmmaker Andrew Lang, Cannes still has its artistic integrity. “Cannes is still the festival that everyone tries to get their films into. For serious art house cinema, there’s no better place to launch a film. Films that might be considered ‘difficult’ to distributors because of their lack of stars or challenging subject matter premiere at Cannes, and with that stamp of approval might then be seen throughout the world. No other festival – except perhaps Sundance – has the same transformative power on a film’s fortunes.”

He told European CEO that while commercial factors may have crept into Cannes, it still showcases a great deal of challenging cinema. “There’s definitely a creeping commercialism, but where isn’t there? I can understand what Godard misses. In 1968, he had the festival closed in solidarity with the French Student protests. I can’t imagine many modern directors doing that.”

This might, however, reflect the wider film industry than just Cannes. More focus by the larger studios has been placed on ‘safer’ films that are likely to make money, rather than riskier art-house stories. Sequels of big commercial franchises are being made more and more, and although they aren’t don’t get considered for the awards at Cannes, they do take up much of a film studio’s budget.

The festival has other criticisms too. In 2012 the festival suffered a series of complaints over its lack of recognition for female filmmakers. Of the 22 films nominated for the top award in that year’s context, men directed them all. The previous year saw four women in contention, while 2013 saw just a single woman nominated – Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi for Un Chateau En Italie. To date, only one woman has won the Palme d’Or – New Zealander Jane Campion for her 1993 film The Piano.

Lang continues:

“Films tend to spend the whole year deciding on offers from festivals. Some films might be better suited to different festivals. For example, a smaller film might find it better to premiere at Venice and stand out from the crowd, rather than at Cannes where it can get swamped by big hitters. It’s also all about timing. A film might not be ready to premiere at Cannes in the spring, and so would be better suited to a later festival like Venice in the autumn.”

Despite these factors, Cannes, for the time being, is still the one that most filmmakers would want to be at. “None of these festivals carry the weight or prestige of Cannes.”

Worldwide, that’s true. It’s funny how little anyone in Cannes cares about the Oscar race. You’d think they would – but honestly, how could they?  Not with what they have to work with.  Their small jury tends to pick vital, interesting films to win the Palme d’or – but that no bearing whatsoever on the Oscar race, as we saw with Blue is the Warmest Colour last year.  That was the most surprising and talked about film of the fest but it hasn’t really stood the test of even a few months out, not like some of the other movies that played in competition. Thing is, the Palme and every other major award is always going to fall prey to hype and excitement. Human nature and all of that. What is always lost in any contest for “best” is perspective, which you don’t really get until much later.

Sundance, Telluride and Toronto are the other major film festivals but they tend to mostly favor and focus on American product  – and/or films designed to hit the American audiences.  Perhaps that is changing.  Venice and Rome, as this story points out, come second to Cannes in terms of making a big splash – although Venice seems to have a slightly better foothold in the Oscar race than the others.  Either way, the stars turn out, the stars turn out, the stars turn out.  All glammed up and hitting the red carpet – what better way to promote anything.