Distribution experts Mick Southworth and Martin McCabe explain why the endless festivities of the Cannes Film Festival have a serious role to play in the global film market.
Like excited children to a giant sweet shop they dash, the lucky ones with their corporate expenses in one hand and list of important meets in the other. All en route to gorge themselves rotten on the glittering, gooey sweet mess of movies, meetings and nocturnal mayhem that is the Cannes Film Festival. Yes, it’s that time of the year again.
It isn’t that hard to see why a lot of new producers feel a wee bit isolated—terrified, even—when, trembling with anxiety, they hit the famed Croisette for the first time. Frankly, nothing can prepare you for the feeling of abject insignificance that awaits you. It really doesn’t help that all around there are huge glossy posters, gaudy banners, dinner-suited ‘starry’ premieres and noisy promotions going on everywhere. Trailers and showreels blast out from 1,000 screens as your senses overdose on the hard sell of mostly cheap, occasionally expensive, independent movies from all around the world.
So, what is this all for? It’s just selling right? It’s just flaky movie industry people trying their best to get your divided attention and then, perhaps, your cash. Be it one of those daft Troma guys running up and down the seafront in 110°C of the midday heat, locked in a rubber suit, trying desperately to get you to take a flyer for ‘Tales From the Crapper’, or a big show-off, faux-Bruckheimer type marketing construction built on the front of one of the major hotels, it all pretty much amounts to the same thing. And it’s got less to do with market expertise, and more to do with sheer blind panic, than you might reasonably think.
Truth be known, they just want you to notice them. That’s the name of the game at Cannes, and the dire flip side to that is completely unthinkable. If you fail to get your flick off the ground then you are probably going to have a bit of a struggle to pay off the €50,000 that you forked out for your Carlton Hotel sales booth. And here’s the rub folks. You have only got 10 short days to get it right.
It’s like that scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House. When all else fails, throw a party. You can forget the togas this time; just get a big screening sorted out. PR the life out of it, hire one of the beachfront restaurants, or glamorous boats in the old port, or even one of the purpose-built party venues, chateaux or clubs, and Robert’s your uncle. You have yourself a high-profile Cannes premiere, where you can gather every potential distribution buyer, member of the world’s press and enough D-list celebs and hangers-on that your heart could ever wish for. In fact, your biggest problem will be keeping the entire world from gate-crashing, as these events become the primary target for most of the weekender ‘industry tourists’ and the junior staff, who—probably rightly, given this industry’s crap lower wage levels—see the whole event as one big jolly anyway.
But what’s the real point of all this revelry? Well, when Trainspotting was merely a big-screen adaptation of a rather cool, but undoubtedly parochial novel by Irvine Welsh back in 1997, the mass rave at Palm Beach Club became the absolute ‘must be at’ premiere at that year’s festival, and had everybody buzzing—indeed, a head of Film Four Distribution at the time. Mick can well remember firsthand how this single event managed to go a long way to creating international awareness for the picture and then further defining it as a significant cultural moment. It’s also fair to say that this singular event reignited and perhaps redefined an idea that had probably long since seen its heyday.
After all, in the early days of Cannes the festival itself had largely been an attraction for tourists and moneyed European socialites who were drawn to this little coastal town by the allure of exclusive parties in luxury hilltop villas and expensive seaside hotels, rather than the film screenings themselves. As the festival’s global profile and popularity increased during the postwar years, it gradually became the de-facto venue for the international film industry to come together and do business. It wasn’t until 1959 that the first Marche Du Film was held on the roof of the Palace Croisette, with the event only becoming an official part of the festival two years later in 1961.
The confluence of money and sex had, however, become an important of the Cannes mix long before then. Suzanne Lazon, a high-society Parisian jeweller and good friend of director Jean Cocteau, had suggested that the festival’s trophies should include a palm leaf motif more in keeping with its Mediterranean locale. The festival’s brass warmly embraced the idea, with the final design being refined by Cocteau himself, and overnight the Grand Prix became the world-famous Palme d’Or.
Sex first attached itself to the festival’s image proper in 1954 with the infamous Robert Mitchum incident. During a beachfront photocall for his latest starring role, the grizzled and somewhat bemused Hollywood star was unceremoniously upstaged by French starlet Simone Sylva, who proceeded to reveal her primary ‘assets’ for the curious gentlemen of the international press, and with them the image of Cannes as the slightly risque and occasionally sun-drenched epicentre of global film promotion was born. Critic’s Week was then inaugurated in 1962 and, from then on, both commerce and art collided in an uneasy (and some of a purer mind might say unholy) alliance which continues up to the present day.
Today, Cannes is the primary international platform for film commerce and, during its 13-day duration, producers and sales agents take advantage of the concentration of the global press, and its insatiable appetite for increasingly ephemeral celebrity and gossip to position international film sales and establish market values for products of sometimes questionable provenance.
Despite all this, we are drawn into the maw of this merry roundelay every May. In spite of continuing economic turmoil and renewed social upheaval, the Festival of Festivals continues to thrive as a unique example of both mammon and occasionally high-cultural aspirations and national pride. Long may it continue. As the weary longtime invitees of the equally glamorous simultaneous event held at that time, the ‘Porn d’Or’, we can confirm that—despite occasional similarities in its overarching modus operandi and proclivities for exposing young starlets—Cannes remains in a singular class of its own when it comes to the trading of horses.