High art, big money: Cannes’ secret to success

Actress Charlize Theron strikes a pose on the red carpet at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Yves Herman/Reuters

With the British film “I, Daniel Blake” netting the 69th Cannes International Film Festival’s Palme d'Or over the weekend, some critics are already pouncing on the jury for prioritizing the film’s political message over its artistic merit. (“I, Daniel Blake” tells the story of a carpenter on disability who falls in love with a homeless single mother.)

The response mimics the concerns many have about awards shows and festivals in general: how impartial was the jury? How much of a role did campaigning and money have in the eventual outcome?

But I argue that artistic and economic interests don’t need to be at odds; at Cannes, the two work in concert: the festival’s success is indicative of the success of the film industry, and vice versa.

Fusing art and commerce

Since its inception in 1939, Cannes has brought together artistic discovery, unparalleled media attention and the political interests of participants and organizers. It has also been a key meeting place for market players.

It is a far cry from the strictly artistic remits of the Venice Film Festival or the German Berlinale, founded in 1932 and 1951, respectively. It’s also starkly different from the purely mercantile American Film Market, founded in 1980 to compete with Cannes.

The fusion of art and commerce is nothing new in the art world. At the turn of the 20th century, the famous Paris Salon art exhibition was described as an “official sales bazaar.” As Auguste Renoir wrote to renowned art seller Paul Durand-Ruel:

In Paris there are no more than 15 connoisseurs capable of buying a single painting outside the Salon. There are 80,000 who won’t buy a thing if the painter doesn’t exhibit at the Salon. That’s why I send two portraits every year – for purely commercial reasons.

At Cannes, neither artistic excellence nor business acumen alone can guarantee a successful festival. Instead, it resides in the day-to-day coordination of economic and artistic concerns and the ability to implement various management techniques: strategy, project definition, target identification, communication, funding and promotion.

Cannes targets industry professionals as much as it does the general public. Meanwhile, the festival’s international bent is made apparent through featuring diverse films and including foreign jury members.

Growing the tent

The festival was subjected to harsh criticism in the 1950s and 1960s. Commentators condemned its mercantilism and showiness, just as they questioned the artistic choices expressed through the awards. Its “shallowness,” proliferation of side events and the importance placed on the attendance of stars and starlets all came in for censure.

The criticism forced the Cannes Film Festival to evolve. The marché du film (International Film Market) was launched in 1959, which clarified and institutionalized the festival’s business practices. Producers wanting to sell their films were soon attracted by the festival’s media reach and the throngs of industry professionals in attendance.

In order to promote less “commercial” films than those in the official selection, international critics’ week was created in 1962 with the support of the festival. Several other “nonofficial” sections followed. The French Directors’ Guild, then in open conflict with the festival, launched the directors’ fortnight in 1969, and perspectives on French cinema in 1973. In response, the festival set up its own parallel sections, brought together in 1978 under Un Certain Regard.

A mecca for journalists, industry professionals

Cannes’ success is also manifest in the increasing diversity of events and participants and, of course, in the increasing number of journalists it attracts.

Over the course of the festival, besides various screenings, there is a proliferation of conferences and events promoting a particular film, a particular country’s film industry or the legal, financial or technical issues the industry is facing.

In 2016, the festival welcomed 45,500 credentialed professionals, including 4,500 journalists and 11 900 attendants of the film market. Festival-goers are divided up into around 20 categories, each with their own very specific rights of access to screenings, press conferences, award ceremonies and receptions.

The growing numbers put organizers in a difficult position. On the one hand, they must ensure extensive media coverage, continued growth and international exposure. On the other, they must contend with huge numbers of festival-goers, which can necessitate multiple screenings, extra security, crowd control and extra costs.

Nonetheless, it’s indicative of the festival’s diverse aims. It hopes to attract the general public, earn media coverage and respond to the expectations of professionals, both from an economic and artistic perspective. The increasing number of professionals from the television, telecommunications and Internet sectors mirrors current trends in the industry.

A true bonanza. Yves Herman/Reuters

While Cannes gives accreditation to a majority of participants in marché du film, this is not always the case, nor do all the films presented at the marché necessarily have links with the festival.

Much commercial activity also takes place outside of the official structure, adjacent to the institutionalized extremes represented by the film festival and the marché du film. During the festival, the suites and conference rooms of luxury hotels as well as the marquees lining the beach are transformed into stands and offices for major companies; publicity is everywhere; countless soirées and receptions are held to promote films and create opportunities to network with distributors, buyers and producers.

While many bemoan the intrusion of business concerns and the detrimental impact this has on artistic merit, it’s the unique combination of commerce and art that makes festivals like Cannes such an important, high-profile event.

Translated from French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

This article was originally published in French

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