Can the Show Go On? Postponed Cannes Film Festival Raises Eyebrows

Palais evacuation
Peter Debruge/Variety

The postponement of the Cannes Film Festival from mid-May to the end of June has elicited a mix of sadness and skepticism among international film executives.

The festival’s decision Thursday evening to delay this year’s edition from its originally scheduled dates of May 12-23 to an as yet undetermined period between June and July was not surprising, given the event’s vulnerability to the rampant outbreak of coronavirus in Europe. 

“It was the logical step to take,” says prominent Spanish producer and distributor Antonio Saura, “and I’m very glad they made it now, and didn’t wait until mid-April (as organizers had previously said).”

The executive, who says the postponement is “bad news” for independents that do “half their business” in Cannes, notes he has been “preparing” for such an eventuality due to the pandemic’s aggressive spread.

Saura, who heads Madrid-based Latino Films, adds he is “not optimistic” about the prospect that the fest could take place in a June-July slot given the evolution of how the virus is spreading, “especially in the U.S. and U.K., which have been so late in taking measures.”

Saura and other prominent executives in Europe and beyond are wondering if, by June, film companies around the world will even be able to go back to normal. 

“I understand their position. The festival not happening would be damaging in every way,” says Oscar-winning British producer Jeremy Thomas (“The Last Emperor,” “Crash”), referring to the Cannes team.

“I suppose reality will emerge, because this disease is happening at different times in different parts of the world, but I think the international side of it will be quite difficult,” says Thomas.

British producer Ed Guiney (“The Favorite”) expressed a similar view. “It feels unlikely that it will happen in (June-July) although I would be delighted if we were in that world,” he says.

Indian producer Sunil Doshi, head of Mumbai-based Alliance Media & Entertainment, agrees it is not “realistic” that Cannes could run in June-July.

“We must be resilient and stick together and regroup for the revised realities of the world,” Doshi points out. “When Cannes skipped a year in 1968 they continued to be the top festival in the world. If Cannes does not happen for one year, I don’t think it will (do) definitive damage.”

“How can you imagine having a festival like Cannes at the end of June?” balks Italian producer-distributor Gianluca Curti, head of Rome’s Minerva Pictures. “Who’s going to go into the Salle Lumiere (in June-July) with more than 2,000 seats to watch a movie? I wouldn’t enter it even with a double (anti-coronavirus) mask!”

On the business side, Curti points out, “Who is going to sit at a table with people from all over the world and from countries where the pandemic will still be active (at that stage)?”

In France, however, companies are more hopeful around the feasibility of a June-July slot for Cannes.

“Cannes sets the tone for all the other festivals, including Venice and Toronto, and for the rest of the year’s film activity as well as for the awards season,” says Gregoire Melin, founder of prominent French sales company Kinology.

Meanwhile, Jean-Baptiste Babin, co-founder of France’s Backup Films, adds, “Usually we organize everything at the last minute in a rush so this new timing gives us more time to get prepared. If Cannes does happen, it will mark a fresh new start for the film industry.”

Fred Bernstein, president of Los Angeles-based Astute Films, says that he, like many others, is “swimming in a sea of uncertainty.” However, he, too, is hopeful that Cannes will be able to move forward.

“We, like others, have finished films we want to share with audiences around the world in these trying times,” says Bernstein. “Many of us are lucky enough to have access to streaming services and DVDs to carry us through. But there is nothing like sharing the movie-viewing experience with an audience of strangers in a dark auditorium.”

Tough decisions ahead for Cannes

Cannes has been signalling to filmmakers that it is still interested in looking at submissions and has even indicated to certain auteurs that their latest works have made the cut.

However, some indie executives believe the festival will be pushed back into late summer, potentially taking the slot occupied by the Venice Film Festival. Italy has been one of the hardest hit countries by coronavirus.

A spokesperson for the Venice Film Festival, however, insists the event, which is slated for Sept. 2-12, is still very much on.

“Obviously we are forging ahead. No other event slotted in September is coming into question. That period is being considered outside the crisis,” he says, highlighting that nobody is questioning the fate of Toronto and Telluride.

“Of course in a situation like this, there can be no certainty, so we are monitoring the situation closely,” he says.

Adding more uncertainty still is the fact that Cannes is unlikely to announce its new dates until there is clarity on when the pandemic will peak in France.

The ambiguity of the situation has been anxiety-inducing for filmmakers who have received invitations from Cannes but are still without firm dates. In principle, late June to early July is good timing, “but we don’t know what the situation will be in the U.S. then,” says one high-ranking U.S. agent.

While the festival has said films are being submitted at a normal pace, the post-production work in countries that are now in lockdown mode, such as France, Italy and Spain, is being delayed, say several executives.

The boss of one French media company poured cold water over the idea that people will be interested in shelling out to enjoy movies on the Riviera, even if the virus dies down by the summer.

“The economy will be so crushed that everyone’s priority will be to jump-start their productions and get their businesses back on track, rather than go to Cannes and spend money there,” says the exec.

If the French government ultimately nixes the idea of a summertime Cannes, some U.S. companies hope the jury will still watch, evaluate and hand out awards for films. They note that victory in Cannes can provide a major marketing boost to a film.

“The biggest disappointment would be to not have that curation from Cannes,” says Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “Cannes highlights the best films in the world and puts them into the zeitgeist.”

One prominent European exec points out that “everybody is making their plans for Cannes not to happen and trying to use modern technology.”

“I don’t think there is anyone who can say whether, by the end of June, the health scare will be over,” says Russian producer Alexander Rodnyansky, whose credits include Oscar nominees “Leviathan” and “Loveless.”

If not, Rodnyansky is hopeful that announced virtual market plans will ensure producers don’t miss out on important business opportunities.

Curti echoes Rodnyansky’s take. “Whether it’s the CAA-led initiative, or Cannes with its Cinando platform, for us as Italian independents, it’s the same. As long as there is a space where we can do some business, and not feel isolated.”

Brent Lang and Leo Barraclough contributed to this report.