Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux isn’t bothered if audiences express their disapproval, and admits he sometimes makes mistakes in his selection. “I don’t care about people booing. It is part of the game,” he says, speaking at r7al, an event in Lausanne, Switzerland that is devoted to classic movies.
Fremaux and his team receive about 1,800 feature film submissions a year, of which 300-400 are “good” or “very good,” he says. From these, only 20 films can enter competition. The Cannes team have to accept “responsibility for our choices,” he says. “I know we make two or three mistakes a year.”
Cannes is dependent on the quality of the films available to it, and that varies from year to year. “You have good years, and bad years, like wine. If you have good sun in spring, you have good wine in October. It’s the same with films,” he says.
When the producers of the rejected films get to watch the movies that got into competition, they inevitably say: “Mine was better,” he says. “Cannes is quite tough. When you are in competition you have to justify why you are there, because a lot of producers are in the room.” Sometimes their films go on to be selected at Venice or other A list festivals, which they claim proves that Cannes made a mistake. He disagrees, as the scrutiny that films receive at Cannes is far fiercer than elsewhere.
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Fremaux acknowledges that a hostile response from the press to a film in competition can damage or even destroy it, and the dangers are pointed out to the producers, but usually they are willing to take the risk as the potential rewards are great. “When you have a film in Cannes [competition] it means it will be sold everywhere, and it’s worth a lot of money, so they are willing to take the risk,” he says.
“I am as sad as the filmmaker or producer when the reception for a film is bad. I feel guilty,” he says. “But the painful moment [that they experience] is nothing compared with what they can get [from being in competition].”
“Sometimes I don’t like it when the opinion is too tough because I don’t know a single filmmaker who gets up in the morning and says: I have decided to make a bad film. They all do their best to make a good film and it’s not so easy,” he says.
Instead of booing, members of the audience can express their displeasure by leaving in the middle of the film. “It used to be a lot more violent. Each time you stood up the seat would go ‘boom’ [as it flipped up], but we fixed [the seats],” he says. He recalls one time when in a theater of 2,200 seats, only about 500 people remained to the end.
“Sometimes [booing] is funny,” Fremaux says. He recalls during the press screening of Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” the booing started during the opening credits, which stated that the film was written by, directed by, produced by and starred Gallo. There was ironic applause halfway through the notoriously slow-moving film when Gallo got out of the van to remove his sweater, one of the few moments of action in the film.
Fremaux defends the right of filmmakers like Gallo to deviate from the mainstream. “Why does cinema always have to be the Hollywood way, with suspense?” He claims “The Brown Bunny” is “not boring, it is an experience.” He adds, “The first time you see a Picasso or a Mark Rothko you don’t understand it. You have to be educated about what abstract painting is.”
Fremaux defends his recent decision to cancel press and industry screenings before the gala premiere. He compares the gala screening to a soccer match. “You don’t have the result before the game,” he says. Holding press screenings before the gala screenings was a practice introduced in the 1940s when print was the only method of distributing reviews, but in the age of social media it doesn’t make sense.
He rejects any notion that he is anti-press. He says he sees the press as being an essential part of what make Cannes what it is, alongside the stars, the auteurs and the market.
Fremaux also stands by his decision to ban selfies on the red carpet, which he describes as “vulgar” and “ridiculous”. He expresses a desire to go back to Cannes’ glory days when the red carpet was marked by “elegance”.
He also is unrepentant about insisting that Netflix must release films theatrically if they want their films in competition.
He believes this is a pivotal time in the history of cinema as it competes for talent and audiences with streaming platforms and television. Among the talented movie-makers who are currently AWOL are Martin Scorsese, who is making “The Irishman” for Netflix, and David Fincher, who has been making TV series like “Mindhunter.” “I think we are living in a world which is, in a way, in the same situation as when the talkies came at the end of the 20s, when television came in the 50s, and video and DVD came in the 8os. Now [the challenge to cinema comes from] the internet platforms, and cinema is resisting, and Cannes is there to show that. If cinema dies one day, we will be the last one fighting to defend it.”