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Fest outgrows turf

Cannes grapples with m ore people and pix

PARIS — It may be autumnal, but Cannes is feeling the heat.

Some things remain the same — it hasn’t substantially altered the size of its competition selection in at least 10 years.

But other parameters are shifting as the Cannes Film Festival learns to cope with a growing number of attendees, a burgeoning film market, and finds the time and space for new roles it is intent on creating for itself.

Showcasing new movies and handing out prizes isn’t the half of it at this massive operation, budgeted at e20 million ($24 million) a year.

Last week high-flying civil servant Catherine Demier joined the org as managing director.

Significantly, her appointment means the fest is sticking with a new three-way management structure put in place by Gilles Jacob in 2000 after he stepped down as artistic director and became president.

“The festival has become too vast and unwieldy to be managed any other way,” Jacob told journalists at a coffee and croissants fueled meet and greet with Demier on Oct. 12.

The arrangement affords artistic director Thierry Fremaux, also present at the meeting, “the best job the world, devoting himself entirely to selecting films,” Jacob said.

But has Cannes changed all that much since the days when Jacob and then-president Pierre Viot ran the show as a duo? Yes, on many levels.

The total number of new feature-length films screened in official selection and in the market has nearly doubled in the past decade, more than 900 for this year’s edition.

And more and more people are clamoring to see them. Accreditations for this year stood at 21,000 for the festival, 9,500 for the market.

There was disappointment recently when it emerged that an ambitious $60 million extension to the Palais des Festivals, complete with a 500- seat auditorium, wouldn’t be ready in time for the festival’s 60th anniversary in 2007.

“We’ve more demand for exhibition space than we can satisfy,” says market topper Jerome Paillard glumly.

The delay is also a blow for the fest, which was counting on the auditorium to ease pressure on its ever-tighter program of screenings. For this year’s edition, the fest introduced day-after screenings to give participants a second opportunity to see competition films. That factor, new section Tous les Cinemas du Monde and a hike in out-of-competition films (in double figures after being single figures in the 1990s), brought the number of fest screenings to 228 this year.

All of them have to be squeezed into five venues with a total capacity of some 4,000 seats.

“We really need that extra theater,” official Michel Mirabelle, in charge of the fest’s ticket service, told Variety last week.

The festival is also modernizing its working practices — and interacting more with the people who attend. For the third year running, it has conducted an Internet client satisfaction survey which this year drew responses from 2,000 accreditees.

Meanwhile the market is also getting into new media, and jumping ahead of rival marts, with the launch of cannesmarket.com, a year-round service providing details of films and projects that are on the market. Links take Web users to the sites of ongoing events, such as the upcoming AFM.

Organizers have made their work load heavier by introducing a swath of sideline events that keep on widening the festival’s remit. Among the more established ones is the eight-year-old Cinefondation, which screens the work of budding filmmakers and invites them to Cannes.

More recently the festival has tacked on such events as the Producers Network, the Atelier du Festival, and Tous les Cinemas du Monde, the first two catering to producers with projects to advance, and the latter putting the focus on films from a selected handful of countries.

“Everything we do must be with one aim in mind, to serve the interests of cinema” Jacob said last week.

But clearly, there’s also a growing political dimension to Cannes.

In the past few years the fest has carved out for itself a geopolitical role, by bringing together industry honchos and politicos from around the world to discuss issues such as piracy and digital technology.

And for the past three years the first Tuesday of the festival has been Europe Day, an event initiated by European Commissioner Viviane Reding at which culture ministers from all over Europe get to meet industryites and talents, and see the industry up close hand.

“The festival has always been international in outlook, but lately it has become the United Nations of Cinema,” quipped a fest spokesman.

There’s more to that remark than meets the eye.

Today France is leading a drive, viewed with suspicion by America, to promote cultural diversity. (This week, Unesco is due to vote on a French-initiated convention that will oblige signatory states to preserve and promote local cultural products.) Where better to spread France’s message and exert influence on other nations than on home turf at the Cannes Film Festival?

“France is proud to be home to the biggest film festival in the world and the authorities have always given it their full support,” says Pascal Rogard, director of the SACD and one of the key figures behind the Unesco convention.

“But it is true that today, more than ever, the festival is emblematic of France’s cultural values.”

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