How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes’ Luster (Column)

In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, plus the world premiere of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” and Orson Welles’ finally complete last film “The Other Side of the Wind.”

From there, the cream of the crop continued to Telluride (the elite Colorado-based fest where Oscar dreams are made) and then Toronto, the massive North American “festival of festivals,” which added even more anticipated world premieres from the likes of Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Sebastián Lelio and Michael Moore. Technically, that made Toronto more impressive than Venice (despite that a few of the latter’s divisive titles, including Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” didn’t come to Canada).

Meanwhile, somewhere in France, Cannes Film Festival topper Thierry Frémaux must have been asking himself, “What happened?” By all reports, he had wanted many of these films to premiere in Cannes, which typically gets first dibs at the best of world cinema but instead was forced to present a lineup of lesser-known directors this year. There is no single answer for this shift from the French Riviera to the fall festivals; rather, it was a perfect storm of elements at work.

First, there was the Netflix factor: After raising a stink in 2017 over the streaming giant landing two films in competition — “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” — the French industry put its foot down and pressured Frémaux to bar the company’s titles from the festival altogether, which meant losing out on Cuarón’s “Roma” and Greengrass’ “22 July,” and further took Welles’ “Wind” out of its sails. Toronto swung hard in the other direction, opening with David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King,” one of eight Netflix films in the festival. Then there was the matter of the royal wedding, as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials drew press attention away from Cannes’ red carpet — allegedly the reason Warner Bros. opted not to unveil “A Star Is Born” at that time.

But the bigger issue seems to be the nearly six-month awards season: Venice serves as the unofficial kickoff to the Oscar race. You can bet every awards consultant in town factored in the fact that “The Shape of Water” won Venice’s Golden Lion, before going on to play Telluride and Toronto, when deciding how to play their cards this year. You have to go back seven years to 2011’s “The Artist” to find a best picture winner that originated in Cannes.

Also, the critics in Cannes are downright mean, approaching each film as if they expect nothing short of a masterpiece, which can be extremely damaging to movies that are perfectly good crowdpleasers rather than austere auteur works. In recent years, that has made American studios very skittish about taking their films to the French fest. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” came out all right, but A24-backed “Under the Silver Lake” got postponed more than six months after receiving harsh reviews in Cannes.

By contrast, big studio movies feel right at home at Toronto, where film-savvy local audiences seem grateful for anything they’re given, the more mainstream the better (which is not to say there isn’t a strong turnout for the indie and international films that have no immediate guarantee of release, such as Stella Meghie’s smart African-American relationship comedy “The Weekend” or Olivier Masset-Depasse’s femme-centric French-language “Mothers’ Instinct”). Fest–goers greet filmmakers warmly, applaud each movie like it’s the best they’ve seen in ages and stick around to ask heartfelt questions during the Q&As.

“Somewhere in France, Cannes Film Festival topper Thierry Frémaux must have been asking himself, ‘What happened?’ ”

It’s no wonder directors love coming back. And they’re nearly always welcome. Just count the number of François Ozon films, declined by other “A” festivals, that surfaced in Toronto over the years. Cannes, meanwhile, features roughly one-fifth as many films in official selection, evidently turning down movies that wound up at Toronto, such as Claire Denis’ “High Life” and Naomi Kawase’s “Vision,” both from female auteurs whose aesthetic doesn’t necessarily conform to the largely male-determined notion of what constitutes “good” filmmaking.

Of the major international festivals, Toronto clearly took the idea of inclusion more seriously than all the others, going out of its way to ensure that 35% of its lineup was composed of films directed by women, including Nicole Holofcener’s “The Land of Steady Habits” and Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The statistic that would really matter here — the one that representatives of Cannes and Venice fall back on when justifying the low number of female directors they include in competition: three and one, respectively — is the percentage of films submitted or considered that were made by women.

Still, Toronto is paving the way by proactively seeking out and perhaps even weighting more heavily films by underrepresented demographics, much as Sundance does, recognizing that festivals are perhaps the most valuable entry point for new talent to be taken seriously. If Cannes wants to reclaim some of the luster lost to the fall festivals this year, it could start not by trying to poach back the big names but by looking for exciting voices the likes of which we’ve too seldom heard before.

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