Outgoing Cannes President Gilles Jacob Reflects on Fest’s Past and Future

Gilles Jacob Cannes President Retiring
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Seated at his desk in a third-floor office at the Cannes Film Festival’s Paris headquarters, Gilles Jacob exudes the calm, patrimonial authority of a lion in winter — or, as Jacob likes to describe himself, a veteran fire chief who has weathered all manner of blaze. After nearly 40 years heading the world’s most important and influential film festival, there is little that can dent his Teflon exterior, and as this king of Cannes prepares to exit his throne, it is not with Lear-like madness or Leno-like resentment, but rather a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and a master showman’s sense of quitting while you’re ahead.

“You have to know to stop before they tell you to stop,” says Jacob, 83, who will step down as festival president following this year’s edition. Jacob, who has held the post since 2001, previously served as Cannes’ festival artistic director for an unprecedented 22 years (1978-2000). “Once you know the festival is on its way, that it’s in good hands, that you’ve found a successor and that everything is going well, you shouldn’t do one too many,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his countryman, the playwright Moliere. “Moliere died on stage, and I wouldn’t want to die on the steps. You never know, you can have a sudden attack. That sort of thing may have its advantages, but it doesn’t match my discretion. It’s too spectacular.”

The “steps” of which Jacob speaks are the steep, red-carpeted stairs leading from the Boulevard de la Croisette to the entrance of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, where the films of Cannes’ official competition unspool nightly before an audience of more than 2,000 actors, filmmakers and industry executives in tuxedos and evening dresses. The Cannes stairs themselves have become so iconic that they even appear in animated form in the festival’s official trailer, rising up from the depths of the Mediterranean and ascending into the sky. “Cannes is like a Catholic liturgy,” Jacob told this reporter in 2007, at the time of the festival’s 60th anniversary. “And when you get to the top,” he added with a playful grin, “God is there to welcome you!”

Also greeting you at the top of the stairs, since 2001, has been Thierry Fremaux, the film historian and programmer hand-picked by Jacob to follow him as artistic director when he transitioned to the more administrative presidential role. And save for their mutual passion for cinema, the two men offer a study in extreme contrasts.

Tall, slender and elegantly reserved, Jacob hails from a family of Jewish industrialists who ran a small, scale-making factory north of Paris, where Jacob himself worked for two decades before becoming a full-time film critic. Short, stocky and bristling with restless energy, the 53-year-old Fremaux grew up in the working-class suburbs of Lyon, put himself through college by running a pair of judo dojos, and got his foot in the door of the film industry working as an errand boy at Lyon’s Institut Lumiere film museum. Where Jacob hosts a formal, seated dinner each night of Cannes at the Carlton Hotel, the football-mad Fremaux has been known to duck out of official screenings to watch a match on TV in the nearest bar.

All of this has made it irresistible for some in the French and international press to insinuate tension and dissent in the House of Cannes over the past 13 years, though Jacob has always been quick to quell such rumors. “The director of the Cannes Film Festival has the power of life or death over films,” says Jacob, who worked in tandem with Fremaux on the film selection from 2001-2003, before ceding the reins to him completely in 2004. Since then, he says, he has intervened “only in certain circumstances which seemed dangerous for the festival,” like the internal crisis that erupted in 2010 when Fremaux wanted to screen director Olivier Assayas’ television miniseries “Carlos” in competition. When the festival’s board of directors objected, fearing that it would set a negative precedent to afford a TV production a competition slot, Jacob negotiated a compromise: “Carlos” could be screened in the Grand Theatre Lumiere, but hors (outside) competition.

“Thierry does whatever he wants, I don’t interfere,” Jacob says. “He has his personality, I have my personality. There’s no anger, there’s no yelling, there are no blow-ups. It’s simply that he is someone who has a very difficult time changing his mind. But our relationship has been very good. In life, you have to get along, and when you work in collaboration you’re condemned to finding a solution. That’s normal. It must be the same for you with your magazine.”

Indeed, when Jacob himself first arrived in Cannes in 1976, invited by then-president Robert Favre le Bret to replace outgoing festival director Maurice Bessy, he found that Bessy was still very much ensconced and in no hurry to leave. So, as he would do with Fremaux decades later, Jacob worked side-by-side with Bessy for two years before finally assuming full control of the selection. In the ensuing “Jacob years,” Cannes served as an international launching pad for many of the best and brightest of contemporary world cinema, including the Coen brothers, Dardenne brothers, Nanni Moretti, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier and Jane Campion, who will return to Cannes this year as jury president.

Jacob, who is the father of two sons (one of whom, Laurent, also works for the festival), refers to such filmmakers as his surrogate children, and says that “the important thing for a festival director is to discover films, to be the first, but especially when those filmmakers go on to have a career. Because if you look at Cannes in the ’50s, which you must understand were very difficult years, I’m not criticizing my predecessors at all, but if you look at the list of films from those years we no longer know any of those directors. They completely disappeared from the world of cinema. I know that the directors I showed in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are still around. Very few of them have disappeared.”

Jacob strived, he says, to make Cannes a home for “auteur cinema for wide audiences” or “intelligent popular cinema” (he cites Campion’s 1993 Palme d’Or-winner, “The Piano,” as one such example), and laments the decline in arthouse ticket sales — even in cinephile Paris — that has made it increasingly difficult for such films to find proper financing and distribution. But ask Jacob what he’s proudest of when he reflects back on his Cannes tenure and he emphasizes his multi-year, multi-tiered efforts to expand the festival’s footprint and to shore up its fiscal strength.

Jacob took full advantage of the festival’s large convention center, the Palais des Festivals (built in 1979), to dramatically increase the size of the concurrent film market (Marche du Film), where nobody wears a tuxedo and movies are bought and sold by the pound. He forged lucrative TV broadcast deals for Cannes’ opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the nightly red-carpet processions. And he allied the festival with a series of high-profile corporate partners like cosmetic giant L’Oreal and auto manufacturer Renault. “This financial independence has allowed us to always have the working capital to do the festival for two years,” Jacob says. It has also allowed the festival to purchase several real-estate assets, including a large storage facility in Cannes and the Paris offices where Jacob and I are sitting, at No. 3 rue Amelie, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

In those same years, Jacob spearheaded another kind of investment plan, this one in the future of filmmaking itself. In 1978, he created the Camera d’Or prize for the best debut feature screened in any section of Cannes (including the renegade Directors Fortnight and Critics Week sidebars), followed in 1998 by the Cinefondation, a Sundance-style lab for young filmmakers working on their first or second features. In 2005, he added the Cannes Atelier was added as a kind of project market for films in various stages of development.

“I told myself that we needed to develop everything that contributed to new generations of filmmakers,” he says. “I understood that the Fellinis, the Bergmans, the Bunuels and the Hustons wouldn’t be eternal. So we needed to encourage newcomers throughout the world. The coherence of all these initiatives basically shows the ‘Jacob style,’ so to speak. Everything converges toward a single idea, which is obviously the love of cinema, assisting young filmmakers and assisting the cinema of tomorrow.”

However improbably, in his eighties Jacob has also strongly embraced the digital age, overseeing a massive redesign of the official Cannes website and taking to Twitter, where he updates his nearly 17,000 followers (2,000 more than Fremaux) with a delightfully eccentric mix of news, musings, literary quotations — and, during the festival, cell-phone photos snapped backstage, on the red carpet, and even in the jury deliberation room.

“Since the general public can’t come to Cannes, I try to bring Cannes to the public,” he says. “I personally reach out to people and tell them, ‘You’re at Cannes! Here’s the jury at work! Here are the people going up the steps! Enjoy it free of charge! I give away my photos, I don’t keep any rights, nothing at all.”

Regrets? He’s had a few, though he’s disinclined to dwell on them. He would have liked the festival to have its own publishing house and production company, though the lack of those hasn’t stopped Jacob from writing his Cannes memoirs (“Life Goes By Like a Dream,” published in 2009) and directing a series of documentary films focused on different aspects of the Cannes anatomy. He would also have liked the festival to start a production subsidy (like Berlin’s World Cinema Fund and Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund) to invest in certain “auteur” films.

“But I was told this would be complicated because I would favor some directors, and others might be sad and complain,” he says. “I was told it was better for the Cannes Film Festival to avoid participating in production, which I completely understand. But I would have loved that. We could have developed our website a little sooner, that’s a fact. What other regrets? Well, there are always great Jury chairmen we would have liked to have that we didn’t have, always, or a film we missed.”

Of Cannes’ incoming president, Pierre Lescure, the former journalist and TV exec who co-founded French pay cabler Canal Plus, Jacob says he has utter confidence. “He’s someone I know very well, who is very thoughtful and won’t make hasty decisions, who will study the issues, listen to people and then get to work. He’s very cultured. He’s someone who is interested in other people. That’s very important. He’s not an egotist.” And Jacob, who will continue to oversee the Cinefondation, will still be at arm’s reach, should a fire break out.

Above all, he says, “Cinephilia is king. That’s very important. That’s what I’d like to leave my successor. And I wish him all the best.”

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