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Cannes’ Place as Awards Season Launchpad Under Threat in Streaming Age

Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Adam Driver and Tilda Swinton will be among the slew of Hollywood stars ascending the Palais des Festivals’ red-carpet this evening for Jim Jarmusch’s opening film “The Dead Don’t Die,” one of several studio titles at Cannes’ 72nd edition that has been preceded by chatter about changing dynamics between the fest and the U.S. film industry and its pull in launching movies toward the Oscars.

“Last year I joked, ‘We’ll schedule Cannes in September,’ because people were obsessed with the Oscars. But that was a joke, obviously,” Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux told Variety last month after announcing the bulk of this year’s lineup. He went on to add that “Cannes is in May, and we do show American films, and we are still paying attention to the Oscars.”

Indeed, while in recent years Cannes has been overtaken by Venice in terms of attracting prestige pics with awards season buzz, at this year’s Oscars it was the second most-represented fest, after the Lido, with 13 nominations for feature films that launched from the Croisette, out of 106, up from a low of four last year. These included most notably Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” which went on to a win, and Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War.”

Of course being able to premiere a movie after walking up the montée des marches continues to be tremendously enticing for global film executives. And for directors, such as Jarmusch, whose careers have been forged by the fest.

Focus chairman Peter Kujawski notes how “along with Jim, so many collaborators on this film have also walked up the steps of the Palais, so it just made perfect sense to bring this film that celebrates and subverts one of cinema’s greatest genres.”

Kujawski also underlines that Focus and Universal “have a long and wonderful relationship with Thierry and Cannes” and that being the opener “gives it an incredible launching pad as we head into its summer release.”

“It’s a brave choice to open the festival,” says maven British publicist Charles McDonald, who is in charge of publicity on “The Dead Don’t Die,” and last year handled “Cold War,” which he cites as the perfect example of how Cannes can offer a less crowded platform “ahead of that whole late Autumn mad panic” for awards hopefuls, but also for titles that chose to not put all their eggs into the awards season basket.

“No matter what you’ve done, whatever Oscars you’ve won; Cannes is Cannes,” McDonald adds. “It’s an extraordinarily important imprimatur in a filmmaker’s career.” But he goes on to point out that the studios are increasingly “becoming a bit nervous about the expense of Cannes,” not that Venice is cheap, and about “whether they can keep the momentum going.”

Participant Media CEO David Linde, a Cannes veteran — who last year launched Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” from Venice — says it’s a huge honor to get into either fests, but notes that what’s happening in the Internet age is that distributors are becoming more intensely focused on timing.

“You go to Cannes; you are revealing your film, by definition, to the world. The presentation has begun. Do want to be engaged in a nine-month campaign? Or do you want to be involved in a six-month campaign?,” he says. The cadence and costs involved in presenting a movie are becoming more crucial, which explains Venice’s rise.

Things have changed since Linde’s first Cannes, in 1993, when as a Miramax exec he was on the Croisette with both “The Piano” and “Farewell My Concubine,” which tied for the Palme d’Or that year and went on to awards-focused releases. These days, due to Internet and social media amplification, when you premiere a movie “you are no longer just premiering it to festival aficionados and journalists,” he notes.

Regarding “Roma,” which of course went on to win three Oscars after last year’s Lido launch, Linde says they didn’t decide to go to Venice versus Cannes (where the film had been invited before it was bought by Netflix). More simply “the decision was made to launch the film in the Fall.”

Fremaux when asked at the Paris linuep presser to address the current incompatibility between Netflix movies and Cannes – which requires all competition films to be guaranteed a French theatrical release – quipped that “Roma” “was a Cannes Film Festival film; but one [that] we showed in Venice.”

The two fest’s different policies vis-a-vis Netflix are widely considered to be boosting Venice’s status.

For Cannes one of the more pressing questions going forward is how it will come to terms with not just with Netflix, but also with the other big U.S. streamers such as Disney Plus, Apple, NBCUnversal’s service and Warner Media that are expected to be up and running by the fest’s next edition.

“The rules in France are not about Netflix,” a top U.S. exec pointed out. “How are these streaming services going to address Cannes?,” the exec wondered.

At this stage it’s anybody’s guess. However Cannes president Pierre Lescure at the lineup presser said he expected that France’s windows system, which dictates the festival rules, will change in the next three to five years.

The current Cannes rules are not an issue for curated boutique arthouse streaming service MUBI that has landed a slot in Un Certain Regard this year with its first original “Port Authority,” by U.S. director Danielle Lessovitz, a transgender love story set in New York produced by Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions, among other companies.

MUBI founder and CEO Efe Cakarel said he’d like to see the film have a proper broad theatrical release which is why from the outset MUBI engaged French sales company MK2 to sell it internationally.

“We are good friends with Cannes because Cannes is looking at us very differently from Netflix. They are looking at us and saying: ‘These guys are here to champion the kind of cinema that we champion…and they are completely committed to theatrical,” Cakarel boasted.

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