Mother Nature, major personalities provide twists on expectations

For repeat festgoers, Cannes is like “Groundhog Day”: You go to a favorite restaurant, order the same thing as last year, from the same waiter, and even wonder if the couple across the room was seated at that same table last year. You run into the same people on the Croisette and initiate the same conversations: When did you get in, how long are you here for, is it a good festival for you so far?

As in “Groundhog Day,” the basics at Cannes this year are identical but with key variations.

As always, there are parties (but fewer of them, particularly U.S. bashes), giant promos plastering the Croisette (again, fewer) and complaints that it’s a slow market (even though business, per usual, picks up significantly by Day Three). And, oh yes, fest organizers say attendance is the same as last year (they always do).

But the biggest 2010 twist is Mother Nature.

While the weather is annually a topic of conversation, Iceland is on everyone’s minds, since the volcanic-ash cloud threatens to force massive changes in folks’ exit plans. This follows some shifts in arrivals (delayed flights, lost luggage). And it follows the giant waves that battered the Cote d’Azur on May 5, which forced some adjustments for Cannes parties.

Two more same-but-slightly-different phenomena this year: The annual Bob Berney guessing game and the annual Weinstein Co. rumor.

In 2009, Time Warner shuttered Berney’s Picturehouse just before Cannes, but Berney came anyway. He spent the fest dogged by questions about his next move. Last year, he was hounded again at Cannes, this time about the name and the plans of the company he was launching with Bill Pohlad (Apparition wasn’t named until August).

This year, Berney abruptly resigned from Apparition on the eve of Cannes, sending shockwaves through the American indie biz. But he still decided to come to the Croisette. Rumors abound as to his next gig, but he says there will be nothing to report during the fest.

The Weinstein rumor, rampant since Friday, is that the brothers will announce their acquisition of Miramax. The Weinstein Co. threw a party for its distributors Saturday night, and some predicted it would be a double celebration, but the company and its toppers are mum on any such announcement.

On the whole, Hollywood has a muted presence on the Croisette. Studios once crowded the Croisette with signage for their releases, but it’s getting more difficult to justify the expense.

Ground zero for Hollywood signage is usually the Carlton Hotel. This year, releases getting a plug included Paramount’s “The Last Airbender,” Sony’s “Salt,” and 20th Century Fox’s “Gulliver Travel’s” and “A-Team.” Otherwise, the signs along the Croisette for other Hollywood pics are less plentiful.

As for parties, Universal threw a big bash after the world premiere of “Robin Hood” at the Majestic Hotel. Fox decided to forgo a premiere party for Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and instead had a small dinner for the filmmakers.

As usual, Cannes is about finalizing deals, or laying the groundwork for future ones. But hovering over everything is a big cloud — literally. Many festgoers are checking websites daily for reports of the volcanic cloud, particularly those who arrived in Nice via the U.K. or Germany. Transportation updates on Sunday warned of possible disruptions and/or airspace closures due to the volcanic-ash. (U.K. travelers have the double whammy of a strike by British Airways crews May 18-June 9, so some festgoers are talking about their return home as if they’re trying to get on the last plane out of Saigon.)

As for the giant waves, the city mobilized quickly to prepare for the fest, allowing most beachside restaurants to reopen within 48 hours (Daily Variety, May 12). But piles of debris are still evident on the Croisette, while cranes are busily replacing sand that was swept away.

Several beachside parties early in the fest had to relocate because of the damage. At the Audi beach, the floor collapsed inside the big tent, forcing one party to move elsewhere. Organizers had to quickly call the long list of invitees.

Guests attending the annual opening night party for the Marche du Film at the Majestic beach on May 12 had to battle the rising surf as they entered the party, while partygoers out on the pier had to be evacuated when the waves got a bit too rough.

Much of this is startling to Hollywood folks, who tend to think money, manpower and marketing can solve any crisis. But festgoers are being reminded of something farmers live with every day: You can make plans, but when Mother Nature wants to take charge, you’re powerless. And this time, film folk are at the mercy of something they can’t even pronounce: Eyjafjallajokul.

It’s a good reminder — not a pleasant one, but a useful one — that there are some things we can’t control. Who ever thought that Cannes would be such a perfect metaphor for life?

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.

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