Is the Cannes Film Festival still number one?

It has glamour, history and tons of media hype – but is Cannes still the best place to launch a new film? Tom Brook looks at the festival and its competitors.

It’s been called the stairway to heaven – the red-carpeted steps leading up to the Palais des Festivals at Cannes where top directors and stars congregate each night. It is one of the most media-saturated spaces on Earth, making Cannes a particularly desirable platform for the big studios seeking maximum publicity for their pictures – and the press presence continues to grow. Last year four thousand journalists were accredited to cover the festival; forty years ago there were just over a quarter of that amount.

What the festival can do to bring attention to a film is perhaps unbeatable. Cannes veteran John Durie, who runs Strategic Film Marketing, knows that when Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of The Great Gatsby, appears on the red carpet on the festival’s opening night, the publicity impact will be spectacular. “Watch the television or the newspapers the next day. You just cannot replicate that kind of coverage, even if you paid. It is incalculable,” he says.

But as a marketing machine Cannes is not without its perils – a spanner can easily get thrown into the works. The festival can amplify a film’s perceived weaknesses and any harsh critical comment that surrounds it.  

Warner Brothers, the studio backing The Great Gatsby, might be having second thoughts about its decision to launch the film at Cannes. It has already opened to rather mixed reviews in the US and some critics’ complaints may end up putting a negative spin on the film once it arrives in Cannes. 

Launch pad

Film critics at the French festival are loud, opinionated and free thinkers - they don’t hold back when they don’t like a film. French filmmaker Yves Montmayeur, Cannes’ press conference moderator, believes the fierce independence of critics at the festival can scare away the Hollywood studios.

“Some American producers of blockbusters don’t want to be in Cannes because it’s very risky,” he says. “When Hollywood is working for the release of a blockbuster there’s a strategy. Everything is programmed. But with Cannes it’s another story because you have all the critics of the world there with a free way of talking.”

But such is the potency of Cannes as a launch pad that negative reviews don’t necessarily damage a film’s commercial prospects. Seven years ago The Da Vinci Code starring Tom Hanks was the opening night film at the festival - critics didn’t like it. Words like “grim” and “plodding” were used to describe it. But despite the negative press it went on to gross an impressive sum, more than $750m worldwide.

Cannes isn’t just seen as a desirable platform to launch big budget extravaganzas. It can be just as effective in promoting the auteur driven art house fare that forms the heart of the festival’s Official Selection. There’s no doubt that Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film Amour got an enormous lift in Cannes last year by winning the Palme d’Or – the festival’s top prize. That set it on a very positive trajectory that led all the way to the Oscars, where it triumphed by winning the Best Foreign Language Film trophy.

No guarantees

Low-budget filmmakers, who you might expect to see at festivals like Sundance, report that having their film launch at Cannes can bring many dividends. British director Ben Wheatley, whose well received dark comedy Sightseers was shown in the sidebar Directors’ Fortnight showcase last year, thinks the festival’s illustrious history rubbed off on his film. “It’s the continuity of Cannes,” he says. “All the other movies that have been shown there suddenly shift onto your shoulders a little bit. You get the splash back from all those movies that have been before. And that means that suddenly everyone treats your movie slightly more seriously.”

That view is shared by rising Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani whose second feature Chop Shop was shown at the festival several years ago. For him, having the film at the Directors’ Fortnight made a big difference. He says: “It helped the sales, it helped the exposure, it helped the prestige of the film, and it helps people want to watch it because it has a stamp of a very prominent festival.”

But there’s nothing that automatically guarantees that a film will get publicity at Cannes merely because it’s in the line-up. Bahrani cautions: “It’s a bit of a circus and easy to get lost there, but I got lucky and had a very good reaction there”.

Marketing strategist John Durie believes independent filmmakers can always take matters into their own hands and use Cannes to influence others to get word out on their films. “There’s parties and drinks and cocktails and if you really have your wits about you and you are a bit of a hustler you can really make a point of running into a lot of very important people,” he says.

Media circus

There is of course a rampaging paparazzi press on the lookout for celebrities at the festival but serious filmmakers seeking to promote their movies can expect to encounter an orderly parade of relatively well-informed and inquisitive film journalists– though the number attending –– especially from America – has been decreased.

Susan Norget, a top publicist specialising in the promotion of independent film in America, notes: “Any number of US journalists, critics and film writers, who used to write for print publications no longer go to the festival - either because they no longer have jobs - or the outlets have just cut their budgets and are no longer sending anyone.”

Cannes has its competitors too. For the studios promoting pictures that are likely Oscar contenders the Toronto International Film Festival - held every September - may be a better platform. Toronto is also a desired venue for filmmakers from outside Canada trying to raise the profile of their work in the US. It really helped Ben Wheatley when Sightseers was shown there last year. “Toronto is really amazing because you hit all the North American journalists,” he says.

Every festival has its strengths. Sundance is still good for independently produced features. Berlin is known for more serious intellectual fare, documentaries and experimental work. Venice, the world’s oldest international film festival, is seen as a cousin to Cannes but with less A list talent.

But Cannes sets itself apart because of its truly global remit in bringing in films and directors from every continent. Tom Bernard at Sony Pictures Classics says:  “It is the number one festival for world cinema, there’s no question there, Toronto is a very important film festival that has a lot to do with the US awards season, but Cannes certainly still is the stage that’s number one in the world.”

There’s also a historical romance to Cannes that explains its ongoing primacy. It occupies a special place in the imagination of movie lovers everywhere – and that makes it very hard for other festival to compete. Cannes is part of the mythology of cinema. It’s the place where the legendary stars of yesteryear went, whether Elizabeth Taylor or Grace Kelly, who lived in nearby Monaco, or Hollywood acting great Gregory Peck. Cannes is sophisticated and smart and all about world cinema – and it has that quite magnificent red carpet reaching to the heavens. For the time being at least, Cannes remains the place to be.

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