The French connection

To score in Cannes, it takes Gaul

George W. Bush and Tony Blair may have launched their $70 billion English-language co-production, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” without a French partner, but try launching an assault on the Cannes Film Festival’s competition sans partenaire francais and you’ll probably never get past the beach.

You want to compete for that most prized honor in the world of international film fests, the Palme d’Or? Simply put: If your film has no French dough, no go.

Based upon Variety‘s research of the past 10 years of Cannes’ Intl. Competition, the odds are overwhelmingly against anyone, from America’s most powerful filmmakers to aspiring auteurs from Bangkok or Buenos Aires, getting into the competition without the benefit of a French business partner.

Consider these daunting numbers:

  • Every year, from 1993-2002, a film won the Palme d’Or sporting one or more French partners in three key categories: a French production partner, sales agent or distribution deal in place at the time of the fest.

  • During 1999-2002, nearly half (43 of 90) of the films in competition had partners in all three categories. In the same period, an amazing 86% (77 of 90) of the films joined the competition with French distribution on board at fest time.

  • Perhaps even more startlingly, 92%, or 101 of the 110 films in the Cannes competition from 1999-2003, have at least one French partner. This includes years like 1999 when 18 of the 22 films in competition had French distribution in place prior to the start of the fest, and 21 out of the 22 films had a French partner.

  • And the coup de grace: 18 of this year’s 20 films in competition have at least one French partner.

So what does this mean in practical terms?

Important films still pour from Cannes: “The Pianist,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “Mulholland Drive” to name just a few.

Still, Variety‘s statistics provide ammunition for critics of the fest who have long contended that Cannes should also be judged by the films that do not unspool on the Croisette.

In the words of one German producer who has had films in competition in both Cannes and Venice, “The last thing you want to do as a foreign producer is submit your film to Cannes yourself. You must have a French distributor submit the film. And not just any distributor, but a powerful one.”

This producer also claims to have had a film turned down by Cannes, but after securing French distribution and resubmitting with no changes to the film, it was accepted.

“The French say it’s all about the quality of the film, but what the hell does that mean? One call from a French distributor and the ‘no’ became ‘yes’ and nothing in the film had changed.”

Many of the sources for this story were successful competitors in Cannes. Many were unhappy would-be competitors. They hailed from Hollywood, London, Munich, Rome and elsewhere, but most of them shared the fear that talking about the French film business influence on Cannes would hurt their chances to compete.

For instance, one powerful American producer whose films have been in Official Selection nearly a dozen times, said, “Have I ever had a film in competition without a French distributor? Never. And I wouldn’t.”

He explains his logic: “Is Cannes the world’s most important film fest or is it a French fest that also happens to be the world’s most important? The latter.”

UA president Bingham Ray acquired Cannes award-winner “Bowling for Columbine” last year and has had a number of films in Official Selection during his long career in specialty films. He doesn’t buy the “get a French distrib, go straight to Cannes” strategy.

“I go straight to Monsieur Jacob,” says Ray, “and his partner in crime, (artistic director) Thierry Fremaux. If it’s a film you have from a foreign land, maybe you go through a European partner.”

Camela Galano, New Line Intl. prexy, also cites her company’s success with “About Schmidt,” which competed in Cannes last year, as proof that the French distributors don’t control or unfairly influence the competition.

“I think it’s interesting that when New Line went the more political route, (submitted its films via a French distributor) the films didn’t make it,” recalls Galano. “And when we went the road less traveled — i.e., simply submitting it to Cannes with no French connection — the film got in.”

She explains that in 2002, “We submitted ‘About Schmidt’ directly to Fremaux. (French distributor) Metropolitan hadn’t even seen it yet. We needed a quick answer because of Jack Nicholson’s schedule. Of course, that has everything to do with the film. Nor did New Line suggest otherwise — they were in a time bind and had to take their chances. And it worked.”

Happy endings aside, Variety‘s research shows that no other major fest, including Berlin and Venice, shows anything resembling the kind of local film business influence that is evident in Cannes.

In chatting with filmmakers about the fest, one gets the distinct impression there’s two categories of observers — insiders and outsiders.

One Euro filmmaker who’s been in other major fests — but not Cannes — told Variety: “The selectors travel all over the world pretending to be looking at films, but at the end of the day the choice is really based around producers who have a strong relationship with the festival.”

He defined “relationship” as “good communication and similarities in taste” with the fest. However, when shown the results of Variety‘s research, he gasped, “My god, it’s even worse than I thought!”

Not surprisingly, the suggestion that something besides “the quality of the films themselves” could impact on the selection committee is vigorously disputed by both the fest itself and toppers in the French film industry.

Jacob is much more than simply the president of the Cannes fest. He’s an institution. With more than a quarter-century at the helm, Jacob has not only weathered all of the changes in the global film business, he’s also kept Cannes at the top of the international fest calendar.

While offering his own interpretation of their meaning, Jacob resolutely refutes the implications of Variety‘s statistics.

He points out that despite the evidence of French participation in the financing, sales and distribution of the overwhelming majority of Palme d’Or winners in the past 10 years, “The number of French Palmes d’Or in 56 years is very low.”

Very low, as in too low? “That’s surely the case if we take into account the diversity of talents. It’s due, no doubt, to the over-graciousness of French jurors, who unlike others, don’t systematically vote for films from their country.”

Jacob also has an explanation for the uncanny consistency of French distribution presence in the Competition line-ups.

“No one’s obliged to have a French distributor, but it’s often the case for indie producers who don’t want to advance the money inherent in presenting their film at Cannes that they often do have French distribution.

“Bringing the director and actors, accommodating them, paying for a publicist, editing hundreds or even thousands of copies of a press book in English and French, printing up hundreds of publicity photos, taking TV adverts, these costs are covered by a distributor who has bought the films. So the producer thinks it is in his interest to sell the film before Cannes.”

It’s a view echoed by others in the film industry, even by Jacob’s chief competitors.

Dieter Kosslick has only two years under his belt as Berlin Fest topper, but he spent many years prior to that running the German regional financing outfit, Filmstiftung NRW.

But unlike many in the German film industry who expressed feeling like “outsiders” to Cannes, he harbors no grudges. “As head of NRW I never participated in the submission process, so I know nothing about it. It was always very exciting to be in Cannes.”

Venice Fest director Moritz de Hadeln, who ran Berlin for more than 20 years and Locarno before that, concurs with Jacob’s view that the cost of competing can influence distrib/fest relationships.

“I just came from Los Angeles,” recalls De Hadeln, “and I spoke to a major film company who told me they won’t send their films to Venice without an Italian distributor because competing is so expensive. They want to share the costs or even avoid the costs. I imagine this is very much the case in Cannes.”

However, De Hadeln doubts that the costs of competing are the whole Cannes story.

“Here’s what I find worrying,” says De Hadeln. “French coproducers have traditionally pushed films to Cannes. French politics are very defensive. They take special care about anything with a French hand in it.”

Jacob would argue that this “French hand” can hold great value for the fortunes of a film.

“There are some cautious producers who add a clause enabling a revision of the price if the film gets the Palme d’Or,” notes Jacob.

He goes on to detail other ways that the Cannes Fest financially impacts the French industry.

“Distributors try to get their films selected. In the weeks before the selection there are disinformation campaigns which try to make people believe that the fest has selected such and such a film… This is, of course, designed to facilitate sales. The fest is very careful not to reveal its choices — not to get involved in ‘insider dealing’ as they say at the stockmarket.”

Despite all of these behind-the-scenes machinations, quantifying the value of the competition and even the Palme d’Or remains dicey.

One international sales pro says the specialty type of films that reach competition “aren’t the kind of films for bidding wars,” but they acknowledge that for the French deal, “there are what we call ‘bumpers,’ for winning awards in Cannes just like there are bumpers for winning Oscars. But these totally depend upon the film.”

In other words, 1994 winner “Pulp Fiction’s” $214 million world gross can’t be compared to 1999 winner “Rosetta’s” $4 million.

Still, it’s hard to disagree with Jacob’s assessment that “The fact that the French distributor knows the fest and the press well is evidently a favorable factor.” It’s impossible to dispute there’s tremendous value for both films and careers in grabbing a Cannes kudo.

Based upon Variety‘s research, sales outfit Celluloid Dreams would also seem to have a grasp of this “favorable factor.” This year alone the Paris-based firm will have 10 films in Official Selection — four of them in competition.

Yet company prexy Hengameh Panahi dismisses as “stupid” the suggestion that French sales outfits like hers receive any kind of preferential consideration by the selection committee.

She says the company’s tremendous success in Cannes is because “when we have a film at Cannes, it’s not me, it’s not our influence, it is because of our expertise in picking the best — we’ve been doing it forever — and the fact that we have the same arthouse tastes.”

That expertise is undisputed, but there are other advantages to securing a French sales rep. Substantial subsidies — perhaps as much as $50,000 toward a Cannes kickoff — from Unifrance for fest launches would be one of the most significant perks — one that only French sales agents qualify for.

French distributor BAC also does remarkably well in matching its tastes to those who bestow the Palme D’Or.

BAC CEO Jean Labadie says the explanation is obvious: “If there are a lot of French distributors with films at Cannes, it is because we are in a country that has a certain type of film, and we know what the festivals like.”

One Cannes insider’s comments would indicate Labadie is too modest about the influence of certain French distributors.

“The big question,” in his view, “is how many films are selected that were previously picked up, either during or after production, by certain French distributors — Ocean, Diaphana, MK2, even little Haut & Court which has done very well this year, with several films selected.

“I’m sure a lot has to do with the way a film is presented — certain French advocates are persuasive with the selectors.”

His view of the pecking order is, “Smart sales agents try to get the French distributor on board before they take a film to the Cannes selectors.”

When asked how one can explain Variety‘s statistics on “the French connection,” U.K. producer/Cannes veteran Jeremy Thomas notes, “The tastes of Cannes go hand in hand with French tastes. As soon as a distributor knows a film is likely to get into competition, it gets picked up. Cannes is very, very important to the French film industry.”

Or as one Euro filmmaker pithily observes, “It’s not a conspiracy, but it’s not a coincidence either.”

(Adam Dawtrey, Dana Harris and Alison James contributed to this story.)

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