CANNES — It might not be obvious at first glance, but the billboard biz at Cannes is down this year.

Call it a sign of the times: As film players have scaled back their expenditures amid the global recession, the facades of the major hotels are sporting fewer — and less ostentatious — displays than in years past.

While the fest generated E40 million ($55 million) in ad revenues from all media platforms last year, even with a “Transformers” robot and an array of signs for “Up” and “Inglourious Basterds,” the face of the Carlton hotel, usually packed with the fanciest billboards, is looking a bit more low-key.

The Carlton has lost one its most prominent clients, powerhouse jewelry brand Chopard, one of the fest’s sponsors.

For the past three years, the jeweler had invested in massive advertising on the Carlton’s facade and lobby, and rented out a suite and private beach at the Carlton. This year, however, Chopard only has a few signs inside the Carlton lobby and has taken penthouse suite and terrace at the Martinez hotel. The annual Trophy Chopard bash, which was attended by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Christina Ricci and Salma Hayek in years past, will take place at the Baoli nightclub near the Palm Beach, instead of the Carlton.

“We’ve decided to change our marketing strategy for this year’s festival,” said Raffaella Rossiello, Chopard’s international communication topper. “We’re investing less on outdoor advertising and focusing on things that really make a difference for our clients.”

Peter Flower, managing director of Fair Set Organization, which builds and installs all the billboards at the four major hotels — the Majestic, Martinez, Carlton and Palais Stephanie — during the festival, said Chopard’s shift reflects an overall rethink.

“About one-third of the companies that bought billboards last year won’t buy any this year,” said Flower. “Some companies will just go from bigtime billboards to nothing. Some will just reduce their marketing budget and some will just not show up at all.”

And some major French companies — Pathe, Gaumont and TF1 Intl. — have decided to not buy billboards at all.

Flower said Cannes restaurants and beaches used for parties and events will likely see a drop in business of about 30% this year. 

“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and I’ve never seen Cannes like this,” said Flower. “When you see majors reducing their presence from 40 to nearly 10 people and drastically cutting down expenses in hotel and meeting rooms — that tells the story.”