Attendance, star wattage spur optimism

CANNES — Cannes is gearing up for le festival boffo.

As the 55th event kicks off Wednesday, people are crossing their fingers that this will be the turning point after a grim 12 months for indie film and the global economy at large.

Despite the black cloud over Europe’s TV business — which has dampened film sales — there is at least one hint of optimism: Enrollment for the market is ahead of last year, with a 15% increase in the number of participants, to 7,000; 1,500 of those are buyers, according to Marche des Films stats.

The market says 750 films are scheduled to screen, and there are 42 new exhibitors and three new countries in the International Village: Canada, Switzerland and Turkey.

Everyone is clinging to the hope that the fest and market here can bypass the headaches that hit NATPE, the American Film Market and Mip TV earlier this year.

Of course, Cannes can always command the morale-boosting support of big-name talent. But this year, even the normally fest-shy — George Lucas, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson — are making an effort to flog their wares in person.

Expect security here to be tighter than last year, as it has been at every major event since Sept. 11. Credentials this year are issued at the nearby Gare Maritime, since the Palais is off limits to anyone without a badge.

Though fest organizers say the heightened security is merely part of the country’s antiterrorist “vigipirate” plan, others opine the presence of three Palestinian films in the various fest sections and possible high-profile Middle Eastern fest guests have some on edge.

Perhaps because the May 15-26 festival runs a week later than its standard slot (due to the May 5 presidential elections), the town seems more prepared than usual for the onslaught of filmmakers, execs and journalists.

Euro track

And keeping jaded festgoers on their toes are a new currency, a new look and a new attitude.

Since the last fest, francs have been replaced by euros. The long-term effect on international financing has yet to be determined, but in the short run, Americans will have an easier time converting prices in their heads, since a euro is worth almost a buck.

Travelers to various countries are reporting that the switch to euros has allowed many restaurants and shops to round up the price, so things are 10%-15% pricier than last year.

“I hate the euros,” said one vet festgoer. “Under the old system, it was like play money: 450 francs for a meal, OK, whatever. Now I know how much they’re charging and it’s like ‘What, $8 for some ice cream?’ ”

Out-of-towners have begun trickling in, but the biggest crush of people traditionally begins on the day before the opening. The streets here so far have been crowded with natives or French tourists — you know you’re in a foreign country when you see a blind man being led down the street by a seeing-eye poodle — but the Americans are beginning to take over, shouting directions and phone numbers into their cell phones as they walk around town.

‘Tents’ swept away

Physically, the festival will have a different look: There are fewer “tents” this year. For the past decade, festgoers have erected fiberglass offices (white buildings with cone-shaped roofs) that swarmed around the Palais area. This year, the new festival and city management decided that, even if it’s a money-losing move, the public areas near the Palais should be kept free of “commercialism.”

The “tent” people who were forced to move are just giving it a Gallic shrug of acceptance. For example, the Variety setup (including offices, food bar and conference center) has shifted from its Palais-adjacent location to a larger “Variety Village,” a space along the Croisette (the seafront promenade that’s the focal point of Cannes movement).

As for parties along the beach, the city fathers last year declared that the noise level could not be excessive after midnight. Many latenight parties moved out of town or slightly bent the rules, but that noise law in theory is still in effect this year.

The people’s fest

On the other hand, the beach will be turned into an open-air movie theater, the Salles des Sables, with a giant screen set up in the water. Organizers want to more actively involve the public in fest activities, so they have planned screenings of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” a tribute to Billy Wilder and a selection of in-competition shorts.

Almost a week in advance, the film posters that adorn hotel fronts and the billboards along the Croisette were already in place (touting everything from the Jean Reno/Gerard Depardieu pic “Ruby & Quentin” to “L’Attaque des Clones”).

The Cannes mood seems to be hitting people even before they arrive. On Virgin Atlantic flights from Los Angeles to London, the inflight entertainment included Michael Winterbottom’s “24-Hour Party People” — one of the official selections in this year’s Cannes competition.

(Adam Dawtrey, Carole Horst and Andrea Vaucher contributed to this report.)

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