Cannes, the most famous and glamorous film festival in the world, is in full swing. This year’s edition is already delivering the usual mix of hype and glory that characterises the annual gathering on the Cote d'Azur. Critics argue about which films deserve to win the coveted accolades. Reporters interview filmmakers in hotels and on yachts. Photographers swarm around the red carpets, snapping away. Cannes in the grip of festival fever is undoubtedly an impressive spectacle.
So what is actually the point of all this?
Film festivals traditionally provide the first stage for many filmmakers. It’s here that new films are tentatively shown to figures from the industry, distributors, the first journalists. The kind of reception a film gets can determine its success on the world stage. Cannes is one of the first of these celebrations of the silver screen, founded just after World War II.
But today it’s just one film festival among many. Hundreds of these events are now held all over the world every year. They’re often in direct competition with one another and encompass all tiers of scale. There are offline events, online events, some hybrids of the two. Some are specialist, others generalist. They can be competitive, non-competitive, come with or without markets attached to them, plugged into commercial systems like Hollywood or fiercely independent.
While many are focused on the paying public, just as many target business interests. All have to worry about sponsorship and politics, programming and organisation. Festivals showcase films and promote industries. They benchmark – especially through prize-giving – the current state of international cinema culture. But they also act as forums for cultural diplomacy, provide spaces where deals are done and boost revenues for tourist economies.
But Cannes certainly remains on top of this ever-growing heap. There’s something very special about it. A large, generalist, competitive event, it comes with a bustling market in tow and is intimately connected to Hollywood and other commercial leaders. Yet it also manages to project a level of gravitas and glitter that is the envy of its rivals the world over. How?
Cannes benefits from and capitalises upon its long history. Officially founded in 1939 but then postponed until 1946 for obvious reasons, it is one of the oldest of all film festivals. National associations are also relevant as France had previously staged the first ever public exhibitions of cinema – at Paris’s Grand Cafe in December 1895. And this is to say nothing of the accumulation over decades of priceless news coverage of sexy movie stars sunning themselves on the beach.
In the terms laid down by the International Federation of Film Producers Association (the regulating body for film festivals worldwide) Cannes is among a very small elite of prestigious “A-list” competitive events.
However, success comes at a price. To continue to be perceived as a cut above the rest – and to keep on attracting newsworthy sponsors and visitors – Cannes needs to maintain the value of its commercial brand. Both the quantity and the quality of the publicity it generates are key to its survival. Its image is sustained by headlines. And these headlines are cultivated in an utterly self-promotional way.
The speculation about winners and losers that will inevitably play out again this year is therefore of interest only up to a point. Someone or other will win every prize. Honours will be ladled out. A certain number of photogenic men and women are required to shimmer in front of the cameras with the festival logo behind them. And what better way to ensure success than to constantly amp up such coverage? In 1966 700 journalists attended. Last year, there were 4,001.
Cannes is also known for being wilfully behind the curve, reserving its plaudits for filmmakers already garlanded at other festivals; it’s not the place to go if you want to discover exciting new talent. Instead, it adopts established figures and incorporates them into its corporate identity. As a result the claim that Cannes offers the best of world cinema must be handled with care. You could just as easily say that it pilfers the best from everywhere else.
The historically significant Cannes vision – that the medium of film is worth honouring – retains strong appeal in the digital age. More than this, though, this extraordinary annual spectacle jealously guards its position in the front rank of international festivals through the singularity of its standard of self-celebration.