With Netflix Out and Stars Absent, Will Cannes Remain Influential?

Cannes Film Festival
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If a film festival takes place in the South of France with almost no movie stars, will the rest of the world care?

That’s the conundrum facing the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival. The annual celebration of cinema has never faced so many questions about its future and just how much clout it still has with U.S. studios, filmmakers and A-list actors. Though the kickoff for Cannes is still six days away, the elite gathering is already swirling in controversy.

In April, Cannes took a swing at Netflix by caving in to French theater owners and banning the streaming service from showing any of its movies in competition.

In keeping with an anti-technology stance, the festival is also forbidding selfies on its glamorous red carpet (good luck with that). And in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, there aren’t many female directors or stars in the lineup. The most visible representation of women will come from the jury, headed by Cate Blanchett, who will sit alongside Ava DuVernay, Kristen Stewart, Léa Seydoux and Burundian singer Khadja Nin.

Unlike Sundance, Tribeca or CinemaCon, Cannes hasn’t updated its code of conduct to explicitly outlaw harassment. But organizers are working with the French government to create a hotline through which witnesses or victims can report misconduct.

“Cannes cannot be a substitute for the justice system or police: There are laws against harassment and sexual assaults and we will remind people of them,” said festival director Thierry Frémaux in an interview with Variety last month.

As for this year’s movie lineup, one highlight will be the international premiere of Disney’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which is screening out of competition on May 15. Ron Howard and Alden Ehrenreich will have to make up for some missing movie-star glamour. Some of the pictures that will debut in competition include the opening-night film, Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows,” starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem; Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”; and David Robert Mitchell’s thriller “Under the Silver Lake,” with Andrew Garfield (who will not attend since he’s in Broadway’s “Angels in America”).

The truth is that Cannes’ influence and effervescent mixture of celebrity and cinephilia has been fading for several years. It costs tens of millions for studios to fly directors and stars to the Mediterranean town, an expense that shrinking indie players can’t afford.

“The world got smaller,” says Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “You don’t have to make as much noise as you once did. You don’t see big giant Howard Stern floats selling ‘Private Parts’ or seven jets spelling out the name of the latest Cannon movie. You don’t have to host big parties to draw attention to yourself.”

Moreover, the types of films that Cannes typically celebrates — offbeat, auteur-driven meditations — are getting edged out in a business increasingly dominated by tentpole movies and sequels. The publicity value of launching a movie in France or selling foreign rights has begun to diminish at a time when studios can turn to YouTube or Twitter to make their own viral moments without having to endure international travel.

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Fausto Montanari for Variety

On the sales side, many are wondering if Cannes will echo Berlin and be a quiet market for English-language projects. It certainly looks that way. Some U.S. distributors have scaled back the number of employees they’re sending to Cannes.

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a staple on the Croisette, obviously won’t be there because of the sexual assault and rape allegations that ended his career. Roy Price, the former head of Amazon Studios, will also be missing after resigning from his post last October due to a harassment scandal.

The early start date for Cannes, on the heels of Tribeca, is adding to some of the uncertainty. “I think the market is a question mark right now in terms of what’s going to be available,” says Arianna Bocco, the executive vice president of acquisitions and productions at IFC Films and Sundance Selects. “I think it will be interesting to see what screens in the marketplace and what’s waiting for the fall.”

Several high-profile projects, including Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” remake and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria,” turned down invitations to attend, Variety has learned. According to insiders, many independent filmmakers have been told if they want an Oscar, Cannes falls too early on the calendars, as awards consultants point to mixed results for “Carol,” “Foxcatcher” and “Loving.” Venice, Telluride and Toronto, where critics are kinder and premieres are closer to voting season, have cemented their status as the best routes to golden statuettes.

The absence of Netflix will have ripples. Last year, the streaming goliath had a big presence at Cannes with “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” jetting A-list actors such as Adam Sandler, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton to the Palais and hosting a lavish bash in a hilltop mansion overlooking the city.

“Cannes, being this great festival, is expected to be part of that deep transformation of our industry and beyond, of our society as a whole,” says Emilie Georges, a producer and the founder of Memento Films Intl. “It’s a challenging year.”

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this story.