Cannes Faces Existential Crisis: Evolve or Fade?

Kristen Stewart, Lea Seydoux, Ava DuVernay, Cate Blanchett and Agnes Varda'Girls of the Sun' premiere, 71st Cannes Film Festival, France - 12 May 2018
David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Thierry Frémaux almost lost his job last May as the director of the Cannes Film Festival.

Facing a backlash from French exhibitors outraged over his decision to allow Netflix to screen its films at the seaside resort without the approval of the festival’s board, Frémaux was threatened with being fired, insiders say. His €120,000 ($143,258) a year job, a post that allows him to hobnob with auteurs and serve as one of cinema’s top tastemakers, hung in the balance.

That fateful meeting set the stage for one of the most sizzle-free Cannes in the gathering’s seven-decade history. There are dark clouds blotting out this edition of the world’s most famous film festival. A perfect storm of disruptive technology, challenging market forces and self-inflicted public relations disasters are raising questions about its long-term viability.

In return for being allowed to remain at the helm of Cannes, powerful board members such as Didier Diaz and Richard Patry, many with ties to French theater chains and broadcasters, extracted a promise from Frémaux to ban Netflix unless the new media giant agreed to let its movies screen theatrically in France and adhere to the country’s strict streaming restrictions. Netflix didn’t play ball, refusing to let the likes of Orson Welles’ “Other Side of the Wind” play in the official selection, and straining Cannes’ relationship with one of the biggest players in movies.

Other than a moving march for women’s rights that featured jury president Cate Blanchett linking arms with Patty Jenkins and Agnès Varda outside the Palais, it’s been one critical headline after another for the festival. More has been written about Cannes’ selfie ban than for the films premiering at the 11-day gathering. The festival also whipped up controversy for its response to the #MeToo moment after being slow to unveil an anti-harassment hotline and only highlighting three films from female directors among the 18 competition titles. An initiative to improve gender parity is set to be unveiled by Fremaux Monday.

The times are a-changing, but Cannes seems stubbornly resistant to going along with them. Where once the likes of Federico Fellini and Brigitte Bardot could be counted on to add a patina of glamour to the annual celebration of auteurism, nowadays it’s reality star Kendall Jenner in a transparent gown who is dominating premiere coverage.

Not that she had a lot of competition. Studios largely sat this Cannes out. A lot is riding on “Solo: A Star Wars Story” to give the festival a dash of excitement while deploying some genuine movie stars. Of course, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, and company don’t touch down by the Mediterranean until Tuesday, days after many industry players and some of the press have already decamped. Rubbing salt in the wound, Disney pre-empted Cannes by having its Los Angeles premiere last week.

Cannes is not working hard enough on building relationships with the U.S. film industry, be it the studios or the indies, studio executives and festival regulars say. “They’ve always had this attitude of ‘you come to us,'”a festival programmer said. And now that the value of a Cannes premiere is losing luster “the Americans are not as keen to reach out to Cannes,” the programmer added.

The biggest winner from all these controversies may be the Venice Film Festival, another glittering European gathering for cineastes that benefits from being held in September, putting it in the thick of awards season. And over the past decade, the Lido, thanks to its year-round rapport-building effort with the U.S. industry, has been able to leverage that to become a kingmaker, with an impressive Oscar batting average including “Gravity,” “Spotlight” and most recently “The Shape of Water,” last year’s fest opener.

But it’s not just about awards season. Further complicating issues is the fact that films from Cannes regulars such as Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and Jacques Audiard (“The Sister Brothers”) are still being fine-tuned and couldn’t be included in the line-up.

“A lot of the old masters that usually come to Cannes with their movies are not ready,” said Constantin’s Martin Moszkowicz. “The festival competition is a bit subdued up to now for sure.”

Others applaud Cannes for taking a flyer on unknowns, believing that there is more potential for genuine revelations in a festival not dominated by A-listers.

“This year the festival is really leaning into foreign filmmakers who don’t have a long history,” said Paul Davidson, executive VP of film and TV at the Orchard. “You’re often going in not knowing if you’re going to witness the discovery of an exciting new voice, but we like that treasure hunt approach.”

Cannes remains a major hub of sales activity, a place where everyone from big studios to bargain basement indie players can haggle, negotiate and emerge with films to pad their slates. Often this hive of competition sparks all-night bidding wars. This year, studio executives have been getting more sleep. With the possible exception of “355,” a spy thriller with Jessica Chastain and Lupita Nyong’o that sold domestic rights to Universal for more than $20 million, few films seemed to generate much buzz. Even that picture had its skeptics, primarily because it arrived at Cannes without a script and only a series of attachments. The same is said to be true of “Kingkiller Chronicle: The Name of the Wind,” a potential fantasy franchise that Lionsgate is selling on the Croisette.

One positive note, buyers say, is that many projects for sale appear to be embracing inclusiveness. Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island” with Greta Gerwig and Mia Wasikowska, as well as Clare McCarthy’s “The Burning Season” with Naomi Watts, are just a few of the female-dominated packages on offer.

“It’s truly refreshing being pitched titles with female directors,” said Kristin Harris, VP of acquisitions and development at Good Deed. “It’s a change from the last couple of years and a sign that the foreign market is reacting to what we’re going through domestically in terms of a cry for more diverse filmmaking voices.”

Some of these women directors may soon be climbing the stairs of the Palais, debuting their latest films to a starry crowd of film lovers. That would be a sign of progress, but it’s the kind of change that can’t wait much longer. Cannes, at least the 2018 version, is stumbling into the new millennium. To find its footing, Frémaux and others may have to acknowledge that people like taking snapshots on red carpets and must admit that Netflix has a role to play in the future of movies.

It’s a stark choice. Evolve or fade.

John Hopewell and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.