Why Cannes’ Canceled Lineup Still Holds Impact (Opinion)

It may seem self-serving for festivals nixed by the coronavirus to share the films they would have shown, but it serves a strategic purpose in getting those same movies sold and reviewed.

The French Dispatch
Searchlight Pictures

Film festivals are indefinitely on hold, canceled so long as the global coronavirus outbreak makes it unsafe to hold mass gatherings — especially those that bring together guests from different corners of the world. And yet, the lineups keep coming, even though the programmers know their festivals won’t be happening this year.

Case in point is today’s unveiling of the Cannes official selection, in which we learned Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” two entries from Steve McQueen’s BBC-backed “Small Axe” anthology project, Pete Docter’s Pixar-animated “Soul” and more than 50 other features would have been invited to premiere at the French film festival.

What good does it do for a festival to announce a list of movies they have no way of showing? Is it merely a way for such events to “call dibs” on films they would like to have hosted — say, to prevent an upcoming festival from benefiting claiming those titles as their own? Why would any filmmaker prefer to receive the “Cannes 2020” label to a world premiere at the Venice or Toronto film festivals?

These are complicated questions that have less to do with festival politics (such as whether Cannes or Venice gets to “claim” a premiere for themselves, although that is a factor) than the role that such events play in the life cycle of certain movies. Filmmakers rely on festivals to position their movies. That’s often where they find distributors to acquire their movies for both domestic and international release (the way that “Parasite” sold to Neon at Cannes last year).

So, without getting too technical, let’s look at what’s at stake here.

First, it’s important to note that the Cannes announcement is a different phenomenon from the situation we observed early on, when the outbreak obliged festivals such as SXSW and Tribeca to pull the plug on their annual events. That was an unfortunate — and unforeseeable — situation that effectively left hundreds of films in limbo, but couldn’t be helped since the lineups had already been unveiled before the lockdown began.

(Technical aside: When it comes to festivals, premiere status is the most valuable commodity any film has. A festival must feature a certain percentage of international premieres in competition to qualify as an “A festival,” as designated by the International Federation of Film Producers Association, and doing so attracts the buyers, press and film critics that reinforce its reputation. So the strategic thing for any filmmaker to do is hold out for the best fest that will have you, then offer your movie to lower-tier festivals that don’t obsess about premiere status down the road.)

With this in mind, it may seem counterintuitive for festivals that already know they’re not happening to share their lineups. One could ask: Does it impact a film’s premiere status when Hot Docs shared a monster roster of 226 films they can’t actually show? (The Toronto-based nonfiction fest has since made nearly 100 of those available via a virtual edition, now in progress, but as for the others, rival festivals would probably still treat them as world premieres.)

To cinephiles stuck at home, these announcements can seem like a form of taunting, a festival’s way of saying, “Take our word for it as we vouch for the quality of all these great movies. Good luck gaining access to them on your own.” But viewed another way, that endorsement matters. Festival programmers dedicate countless hours to screening thousands of entries, curating the cream of the crop for the public, and rather than let that effort go to waste, they’re championing the discoveries they’ve made. The simple fact that a movie was selected by an high-profile festival can make a big difference in how it is perceived — by audiences, buyers, critics and other festival programmers.

Cannes adds another nuance to the situation, since artistic director Thierry Frémaux has made clear that there will be no online version of the festival to take the place of the canceled event. We will soon see whether any of the titles appear in the virtual Marché (the industry-focused market component of the festival, where sales companies screen films available for sale), but if some of them do, there’s no question that the Cannes label will serve to elevate them from a pack of acquisition titles — in much the same way that later festivals, like San Sebastian of Sundance, now benefit by being able to put Cannes films in competition, where they wouldn’t have been able to do so before because they had already premiered at a bigger fest.

“I think the official selection at a notable festival does mean something, but not on its own,” Toronto Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey told Variety in March. “You have to be able to deliver the film to people who are interested in buying the film for their territory, people who are interested in writing about it and assessing it as critics.”

But what if that’s not possible to do in a safe way? Although Toronto, Telluride and Venice have all messaged the intention to hold their 2020 editions in some form, the coronavirus crisis could conceivably result in the cancelation of all major film festivals through the end of the year.

Now consider this: Under normal circumstances, Toronto programs nearly 300 films each year, far too many for press or acquisitions folks to process — and yet, there’s a genuine prestige in putting the TIFF logo, Berlin bear or Cannes palm leaves on a movie poster or film trailer. If there’s respect to be gained for being lost in a big festival, the same should apply in cases where those showcases are canceled, so long as its selection is made public.

Cannes is counting on this for the films that already had distribution in place (many French releases are timed within a week or two of the festival, piggybacking off publicity generated by Cannes red carpets, reviews and press conferences). In theory, movies like François Ozon’s “Summer 85” and Maïwenn’s “DNA” can still claim the honor of having been invited to Cannes when they open in theaters — which has a measurable impact on a film’s box office in France.

The only thing such announcements seem to jeopardize is their chances of being selected for Venice, which maintains a competitive relationship with Cannes (early suggestions that the two fests might collaborate this year dissolved after it was revealed no such plans were being discussed). That means the 56 movies that accepted the Cannes label did so knowing that the Italy-based fest wouldn’t take them. Others, such as Nanni Moretti’s “Three Floors” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria,” declined Cannes’ offer in order to remain eligible as world premieres to Venice. And still more — among them Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” and Leos Carax’s “Annette” — are reportedly choosing to wait an entire year and resubmit to Cannes next year.

In these cases, Cannes’ announcement starts to look political, but the fact is that Frémaux and his team recognize the enormous power that the Cannes Film Festival confers on the projects that are selected. They’re not about to start applying the Cannes label to films that don’t play the fest in future years, but they don’t want to deprive the directors of that cachet in an exceptional year when the festival doesn’t occur. Other festivals may not be nearly as prestigious, but they still add value to an otherwise unknown film (an example might be the SXSW-selected “Aviva,” which was acquired by Outsider Pictures, with Strand Releasing, despite that festival being canceled).

Acquisitions remain the trickiest part of this equation, since festivals remain the ideal place for buyers — and critics — to get a look at a movie. Reviews do matter, providing an assurance that smaller companies want before buying a seemingly risky art film. All these COVID-related festival cancelations have created a chicken-and-egg situation: Normally, the trades don’t review movies until they publicly screen somewhere in the world; and without reviews, smaller movies find it hard to find distribution. However, given the exceptional circumstances surrounding COVID-19, many of the trades are reevaluating their policies and agreeing to cover movies from canceled festivals. Variety will review movies that received the Cannes label, for example, whereas those same films would not be covered at this point if the festival had chosen not to reveal its lineup.

A similar philosophy explains why SXSW and Tribeca proceeded with their juried competitions, even though no one else could see the movies: because winning festival prizes lends even more power to an unknown film’s budding reputation, and can make all the difference in how it’s perceived by the public. It will take a lot of extra work to evaluate whether this would have been a strong edition for Cannes or any of these festivals, considering audiences can’t see the films until they surface somewhere else in the world. But when they do, they’ll stand out as movies that “would have premiered” at a place whose reputation matters. And that means something.