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Cannes 2019

Dark Clouds Over Cannes

Cannes has been top dog in the festival world as long as anyone can remember. It was originally set to launch in 1939 as a conscious political reply by liberal democracy to the success of Mussolini in establishing the first international film festival at Venice earlier in the thirties. However, its first year was abruptly cancelled by the outbreak of World War Two. Fascism defeated worldwide, Cannes quickly established itself as the great center of international cinema. In the 1950s one could see Orson Welles and André Bazin propping up the bar at the Carlton hotel, observe Brigitte Bardot being photographed on the beach and see the New Wave break as Truffaut won the best director prize for The 400 Blows.

By the time I joined the party in 1985, Cannes had expanded massively. The first addition to the official competition, in the early sixties, was the Semaine de la Critique, which started to show films too experimental for the competition. Then in 1968, when the festival was closed down in solidarity with the students and workers striking all over the country, the idea of a whole new selection focused on directors and films more socially and politically engaged gave birth to the Directors’ Fortnight, which celebrated its fiftieth birthday this year. So successful was this new section that in 1978 the festival set up its own alternative selection, Un Certain Regard, for films too quirky or independent for the main competition.

Along with more films came bigger and bigger audiences. Film festivals were being set up at an ever-increasing rate, so that soon every major city had its own, and the programmers needed to come to Cannes to invite the films of the year to their events. National film bureaucracies were also burgeoning, to supervise and guide their film industries, and the bureaucrats followed the programmers to Cannes—joining all the other buyers and sellers who had already made the Cannes Market one of the most important film markets in the world. And all the time Cannes attracted increasing attention from the press. In 1983, the festival built a huge Palais with screening rooms of every size, from tiny preview theaters for the market to the huge 2,300 Lumière cinema, which during the festival fills five or six times a day starting at 8:30 a.m. with a press screening.

By then Cannes’s business model was well established; it was the only festival in the world that covered the entire range of cinema from high end Hollywood to the most marginal of independents. It was also a crucial part of France’s well-oiled and state-directed cinema industry. Two years ago, after more than seventy years, the model broke. The advent of Netflix with its strategy of taking films straight to the television screen enraged French cinema exhibitors and distributors. They used their massive clout to ensure that Cannes continued its foundational policy of not considering for selection any film that was not going to have a cinema life. Rumor has it that the argument got heated enough that the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, was threatened with the sack if he bucked the industry’s wishes. The result has been that Venice has become, for the first time in history, the first choice festival for the Hollywood studios. Not only does it screen Netflix films, but the Los Angeles execs have decided that September is a better time to launch an Oscar campaign than May.

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