What a Delayed Cannes Film Festival Means for World Cinema (Column)

Better late than never. That’s the optimistic way to interpret Cannes' plans to postpone, potentially salvaging the all-important film event.

Guy Ferrandis/SBS Prods.

When it comes to film festivals, everyone follows Cannes’ lead, which is why it’s curious that the influential French event, originally scheduled to unspool from May 12-23 this year, waited more than a full week after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic — and two weeks after the French government banned public gatherings through the end of May — to announce that it would not take place as originally planned.

So what does that mean for Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” which looked like as good a bet as any to debut there after Searchlight Pictures dated the film for a July 24 release? Or such anticipated auteur works as Paul Verhoeven’s nun-cest saga “Benedetta” (pictured above), Leos Carax’s song-and-dance statement “Annette” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tilda Swinton-starring “Memoria,” all of which had been expected to premiere on the Croisette? The pandemic struck at a momentous time for Cannes, following the historic coup by which 2019 Palme d’Or winner “Parasite” went on to become the first non-English-language film to earn Oscar’s highest prize.

Fortunately for film fans, Cannes organizers are looking at the possibility of postponing the event by about six weeks, until late June, in the optimistic hope that the contagion will have abated and that cinephiles will once again feel comfortable taking long flights and sitting in crowded theaters elbow to elbow with coughing strangers. Yes, that’s one of the many signatures of Cannes, infinitely less glamorous than the red-carpet premieres and black-tie dress code: Nearly every screening is accompanied by a surround-sound cacophony of wheezes and sniffles.

Film festivals are a hotbox for germs as it is, bringing together people from all corners of the world and forcing them into close confines. Add to that jet lag, exhaustion and whatever wear and tear you might do to your immune system from late-night afterparties, and it’s no wonder so many attendees wind up with some kind of cold from the ordeal. (I still haven’t beaten whatever I came down with after the Berlinale wrapped more than two weeks ago.) That’s a bargain we film critics make in exchange for early access to the most exciting new work in world cinema — but the price seems an awful lot higher now that it’s coronavirus and not the common cold that’s going around, and one wonders how many of our peers will choose to sit this edition out.

Frankly, it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if Cannes director Thierry Frémaux had canceled the event altogether. It has happened twice before: The festival’s first edition was halted by the outbreak of World War 2, folding after the opening night screening of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Germany invaded Poland the following day. And of course, the 1968 festival famously ended midway through after a contingent of filmmakers including Jean Luc-Godard and François Truffaut declared the event canceled in solidarity with the student and labor protests.

But there is no real precedent for pandemic — apart from the other festivals, among them such key American showcases as SXSW and Tribeca, whose organizers had made the tough decision to cancel or postpone in the face of the coronavirus — which might explain why Cannes took so long to weigh in. (There’s also the theory that they were committed to moving forward, after passing on insurance coverage for pandemics.) When SXSW announced its own cancelation two weeks ago, the film world was stunned: What would happen to the 100-plus world premieres scheduled to play there? And could the institution itself survive such a financial blow?

It’s important to note that SXSW and Cannes are two entirely different organisms. The former is run as a massive for-profit event, with minimal overhead (the programming team is a fraction of Sundance’s in size) and notoriously cheap policies (filmmakers must pay their own way), and yet, it’s an invaluable launchpad for countless indie filmmakers. SXSW director Janet Pierson and her team are committed to their work and were absolutely devastated not to be able to share those discoveries with audiences this year. Still, in terms of the larger ecosystem, SXSW has never been much of a market (it’s not a place where deals are done), and those films will find their way into the world via other festivals once coronavirus abates.

Cannes, by contrast, is funded largely by the French government, and it hosts not only the world’s preeminent film festival, but also a massive co-production market where filmmakers seek backers for upcoming projects. To take Cannes out of the equation for even one year would have massive reverberations throughout the world of international cinema. It is, simply put, the most important film event of the year, from which distributors flesh out their art-film slates, festivals take their programming cues and countries make their Oscar selections. Films that launch in Cannes are virtually assured a healthy run at smaller fests around the globe for a year or more. And for many international cinephiles, the Palme d’Or is a more coveted prize than the best picture Oscar.

Founded in 1932, the Venice Film Festival may be older, but corruption under Mussolini led to the creation of Cannes, and over the ensuing decades, the French festival asserted its dominance, commanding first dibs of what’s available from the world’s leading auteurs. Occasionally, there are other considerations, like Cannes’ anti-Netflix stance (which cost it the “Roma” premiere) or superstitious American distributors who think fall festivals might be a better place to launch their awards contenders (the reason “A Star Is Born” debuted in Venice instead), but as a general rule, most filmmakers would prefer to premiere in Cannes. In some cases, as with Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the film waited an entire year in order for a chance to compete for the Palme.

So if Cannes had canceled — which remains a possibility, if the pandemic persists or the festival doesn’t succeed in rescheduling as planned — where would that leave the filmmakers who aspire to screening in the Palais when they set out to make their films? Whereas other festivals have floated the idea of developing a virtual alternative (Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX is currently offering a fraction of its slate to locals online), that solution runs entirely counter to Cannes’ stated reverence for the theatrical experience. After banning Netflix from competition, there’s no universe in which a streaming solution would make sense.

As with the orphans of SXSW, other festivals would gladly step up to screen movies that Cannes might have wanted, although one can also imagine a scenario in which certain directors (such as Ulrich Seidl, whose “Wicked Games” lensed back in 2017-’18, or Bruno Dumont, constantly in and out of Frémaux’s favor, with his “On a Half Clear Morning”) would hold out for the following year.

If the coronavirus does subside, Cannes may actually benefit from the slight delay, giving the programming team — who have been moving forward with their selection process amid France’s quarantine — a bit of extra time to evaluate what’s out there. There are rumors circulating that the Venice Film Festival may not happen this year, given how hard-hit Italy has been by the coronavirus and the reluctance of many to travel to the region, which could motivate films seeking a fall launch to reconsider whether Cannes might be a more attractive option.

Cannes could lose a few titles on account of timing, although release dates are in flux everywhere, with no distributor eager to open a film when potential audiences are feeling skittish about returning to cinemas. Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” should be fine (it will still benefit from the publicity of a slightly-delayed Cannes), though I was hoping that Pixar’s “Soul” might premiere there, too (now, the film’s June 19 release date favors France’s toon-centric Annecy Animation Film Festival, tentatively still on course for June 15-20).

Unlike American festivals, Cannes is of such massive importance to the French film industry that many local distributors schedule their theatrical release dates to happen on or in the days immediately following a film’s Cannes premiere — which suggests the local industry will do everything in its power to keep this year’s edition alive, adjusting their release plans accordingly.

Waiting until now to announce the postponement of Cannes wasn’t a sign of arrogance on Frémaux’s part, but a reflection of the enormous responsibility his team holds to their sponsors, the French film industry and world cinema at large. It also reflected an almost unreasonable optimism that this global health crisis might play out in just a few weeks’ time. No one can say exactly when it will be safe again to go back to theaters, much less travel to Europe, but with a little bit of luck, a somber late-June Cannes could be the event to bring the industry back together and galvanize the healing process.