They’re almost invisible. But their presence is crucial.

Behind the glitz and glamour of the 12-day Cannes Film Festival there’s a hive of young interns working long hours to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Surviving on small budgets, little sleep, intermittent snacks and the free Nespresso inside the Palais, they quickly perfect their organisational skills and discover what it takes to make it in the film world without ever stealing the show.


But for all the discipline and adrenalin-fuelled pressure, the trade-offs are often richly rewarding. Interns also learn to network, scoring invitations to cocktails, red-carpet evening screenings and lavish parties. With that comes a privileged close-up of the film industry where even after dark, business deals continue into the wee hours.

Some actors required special attention, like Antonio Banderas, whose yacht was moored near the Palais.

When Quentin Chetritt applied for an internship at the 68th Cannes Film Festival last year, the 22-year-old French film student didn't realise he'd be sporting a tuxedo every day, brushing elbows with  movie stars like Sharon Stone and Natalie Portman on the red carpet. Chetritt was accepted on to a 12-day training programme for projectionists, focused on the more technical side of the festival.


But “at the end of our first meeting, the organiser took me aside and asked me if I wanted to help co-ordinate the arrivals on the red carpet with the protocol staff”, Chetritt said. His team were assigned to wait in the lobby of the big hotels on the main drag in Cannes and wait by the elevators to escort people to their limos.

Chetritt’s boss would phone in each afternoon to confirm the arriving actors’ names, the mobile phone number of their agents, plus the phone details of all the drivers. 

Working both the late afternoon and early evening red-carpet walk-ups each day as stars posed for cameras before entering the Palais screening, Chetritt, who was stationed next to the television journalists, had to keep close tabs on every detail with his team.

“I had to stay calm and react quickly. If there was a traffic jam, I’d ask the driver to make a detour,” he said. “Some actors required special attention, like Antonio Banderas, whose yacht was moored near the Palais.”

You’d never guess that there was so much organisation involved to make it run smoothly.

Despite the “small fortune” of 300 euros ($338) he spent on evening clothes (everything from new shoes to the obligatory bow tie and tux) plus food and travel expenses — versus the meager 340 euros ($383) he earned under the standard internship wage rate  set by French law — there were other pay-offs, including tickets to screenings and the occasional invite to a star-studded beach party with flowing Ruinart and a sumptuous buffet of free food.

Above all, said Chetritt, the experience provided a behind-the-scenes peek at how the industry functions. “You’d never guess that there was so much organisation involved to make it run smoothly.”

Getting the gig

Some interns get their positions through their university or apply to a private programme like CEA Study Abroad, which guarantees students a two-week unpaid work experience placement after the completion of their spring term in France. Others may hear about opportunities through talks, brochures or social media.

Cannes’ American Pavilion, runs a long-established student intern programme, lead by Michael Bremer, employs more than 95 students each year. Some serve burgers and iced coffee at the pavilion’s cafe, schmoozing with high-profile customers; others practice their organisational skills on the event-planning team.

The application procedures, costs and salaries vary widely. For example, French intern students are guaranteed by law a small flat fee, while American Pavilion interns, who apply months in advance, splash out $3,695 on the programme (which includes housing, festival accreditation, breakfast, and access to prestigious round-tables and parties) just for the work experience.

Students generally arrive a few days beforehand, which gives them time to settle in and to figure out how to get into town by bus or train, if the hotel residence happens to be outside Cannes town centre.

“We were only 15 minutes from the Croisette in Cannes-la-Bocca, but that meant a 30-euro-cab ride at night when the buses stopped running,” AMPAV intern Christene Seda said. Hawaii-born film student Seda applied for the AMPAV internships two years ago during her final year studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

My first time on the red carpet was in the pouring rain for the opening night premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

Along with four other students, Seda, then 27, was in charge of co-ordinating the panel Q&A’s that welcome top industry producers, filmmakers and actors, setting up the conference room with name placards, checking the microphones, arranging the tables and chairs and providing refreshments.

“I was especially excited to meet John Cooper, the director of the Sundance Festival, and to network with people I didn’t know,” she said.

And unlike some internships, this was a career-boosting experience, too. “After Cannes, the programming director submitted my film to the Big Bear Short Film Festival in California. It won the Jury prize and was sent to 12 other festivals," Seda said. She got to screen her own short film at AMPAV.

On a more practical level, Seda quickly learned to be prepared for the unexpected during her internship. She came to work with food to keep her going, her make-up bag, an extra dress and a pair of heels.

“My first time on the red carpet was in the pouring rain for the opening night première of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby,” Seda said. “I got soaking wet.”

Champagne on the fly

As an aspiring young producer, the intricacies of film-festival publicity were a far cry from what Daphnee Hocquard expected when she moved to London from France to pursue a master’s degree at The National Film and Television School.

“In our second year, we get to go to Cannes to shadow someone as an intern during the festival," said Hocquard, then just 24. “In terms of film marketing, you realise how important connecting with the press can be, even so early on.”

Her tasks ranged from scheduling journalists for interviews and collating all the press reviews following the screenings to accompanying the cast to press conferences and from one round table to the next. The upside: Hocquard found herself chatting with bigwig industry people whom she could never approach in London.

Everyone is trying to get a piece of that red carpet.

“During the festival, social barriers break down more easily and people let loose. One high point was sitting next to my producer idol, Jeremy Thomas," she said.

Despite the official ban on red carpet selfies, Hocquard (who has since launched her own small company, Cotton Reel, with her production partner, James Cotton) couldn’t resist one glam shot on the top of the stairs of the Palais.

Team players

Iowa-based student Rhiannon Michelson — who had just spent a semester in the south of France at the SKEMA Bachelor Business School, 17km from Cannes — jumped at the chance to intern at the festival last May. She is studying advertising and international studies in the US.

“I... ended up working for a small American-owned French film company based in Paris, Two Bulls on the Hill Productions. Their goal in Cannes was to sell their films to other buyers,” Michelson, 22, said.

I had to dress in black and scream the name of the actors to get them to look our way.

Her days began in a rented private villa in the hills of Cannes, setting up projects and schedules for her bosses. “There were about 10 of us in the team. Our big event was having to plan, promote and host a filmmakers’ networking party at the villa," she said. "The idea was basically an informal barbecue with great music and about 75 guests who could exchange ideas.”

The event turned out to be a big success, earning high marks on the party page of a daily trade magazine, she said.

The intern team also worked the red carpet, assisting the company’s in-house cameraman to identify celebrities. “I had to dress in black and scream the name of the actors to get them to look our way. Since the photographers were mostly men, my voice caught their attention.”

“The best part was getting a different perspective — from outside the US —about how other cultures do business with Americans,” Michelson said.

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.