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Two weeks before Cannes unveils its Official Selection lineup, Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director and general delegate of the Cannes Film Festival, caught up with Variety about his selection process in pandemic times; the changes the festival will be introducing this year, beginning with an expanded out of competition section to host anticipated films; his dialogue with U.S. studios and filmmakers, as well as Netflix; and the health protocols in place on the ground.

With more live events and outdoor screenings planned, the summer 2021 edition is set to be a celebration of films and moviegoing. As previously announced, the 2021 edition will kick off with “Annette,” Leos Carax’s musical romance with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Although no titles besides Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” and “Annette” have been confirmed, a number of films are rumored to be in the pipeline for the competition, including Nanni Moretti’s “Three Floors,” Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Petrov’s Flu,” Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District,“ Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” and Asghar Farhadi’s Farsi-language drama “A Hero.”

The Official Selection will be unveiled June 3.

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What spirit are you in these days?

A mix of quietness and impatience. Ecstatic, too, by the prospect of welcoming back everyone. Pierre Lescure and I have received some wonderful messages congratulating us to have held up amid the turmoil. But in reality, we only did what he had planned to do all along, without giving in to irresponsible actions or getting discouraged. Now, it’s time to host a grand Cannes — without assuming that the pandemic is over.

What do you make of the volume of films submitted compared to 2020 and years prior?

We watched more than 2,000 films. The volume of submissions for this edition is on par with previous years, but with the addition of films held from last year, it turns out to be a large number of submitted movies. Jose-Luis Rebordinos from San Sebastian Film Festival told me that he’s in a similar situation.

How has the pandemic impacted your research of films and the scouting that’s traditionally done around the world?

This year, movies came to us. Surely, we missed the traveling, exchanges, meetings, screenings and negotiations. But everyone managed to adapt to the circumstances. And Cannes correspondents overseas did wonders to pass along the messages. In technical terms, we are now receiving films via links, which makes the submission process more fluid and efficient. Even if we also ask for copies to watch films on a big screen.

Many films were shot in very unusual circumstances and certainly with some urgency. Did these conditions manifest in the films you’ve seen?

The films are the way filmmakers envisioned them, apart from the traditional complexities of producing and directing a film. Obviously, film shoots were faced with particular difficulties due to the pandemic. But the desire to create was stronger than anything. In the end, the pandemic is present in only a few films we saw, either because of the topic (for example, where one or more characters are confined somewhere, or in their own heads), or because we see people wearing face masks. In 50 years, these films will be a curiosity.

What changes (structural or exceptional changes) are your planning to make this year and why?

We have decided, with Stéphanie Lamome and Christian Jeune, to refocus Un Certain Regard on its origins, meaning on young filmmakers, and innovative and personal films that we only see in a cinema. Moreover, we will organize out-of-competition screenings in the Debussy auditorium, which is a powerful theater similar to that of the Lumiere Theater (where the competition films unspool). We’ll also host more “midnight screenings.” Lastly, we will show films in 4 out of the 12 screens of the Cineum, a new and splendid multiplex in Cannes, which will open its doors in time for Cannes. There will be more live events and more screenings on the beach. Taking place in July, the festival also has to be enjoyed by Cannes locals and holidaymakers.

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Leos Carax’s “Annette” will open the Cannes Film Festival in July. Courtesy Amazon

Does it mean the festival will be less concentrated in the Palais, with more open-air screenings and at the cinema in town?

The number of seats will increase but not the number of accreditations because our goal is to continue being a [reasonably sized] event. We are aiming for quality in hospitality and comfortable screenings. The new multiplex isn’t located in the center of the city, but we can image that festivalgoers will go spend the day there and watch four or five films and return to the Croisette area to have dinner or socialize. The building of the Cineum, conceived by the great architect Rudy Riccioti, is splendid.

Regarding Un Certain Regard, if you now focus on young filmmakers and innovative films, does it mean that films from more established directors will play out of competition this year?

The competition can’t welcome everyone, neither can the Lumiere Theater. And everyone wants to show their films at Cannes! We, also, want to welcome them. We shouldn’t reduce the Official Selection to the competition or Un Certain Regard. We created special screenings a few years ago for documentaries, in particular. Now, we are opening up a space where established filmmakers can unveil their films in the Official Selection with a beautiful gala presentation and a proper red carpet ritual. That’s how we are envisioning these out of competition screenings at the Debussy theater.

How are discussions going with U.S. studios and American producers/directors?

First off, we have seen some beautiful American films and the selection will reflect that. When studios put forward films, the discussions are productive. For that matter, one of them has just made a great offer — a planetary blockbuster that will please all festivalgoers.

Can you give me more details about the planetary blockbuster?

It’s impossible for me to reveal it now. I was touched to hear a studio boss saying he regretted not having any films to present us. They love Cannes. A number of films were pushed to the end of 2021 due to the pandemic, and some for spring 2022. If we have to wait till then, we will be patient! Otherwise, with producers and directors I have friendly relationships with, everything went well. After some hesitation, a few months ago, the confidence is back. They know Cannes will happen. We must admit that no one expected such a “miraculous” situation.

You confirmed Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” but what’s the situation with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”?

We watched “The French Dispatch” a year ago and immediately selected it. Searchlight decided to hold it to fall 2021 to release it. We invited it back to Cannes and I hope to be able to confirm it in the coming days. There again, the dialogue has been fruitful and very friendly with Searchlight.

Will Netflix be back at Cannes this year?

Last year, Netflix would have returned to Cannes with Spike Lee’s movie “Da 5 Bloods” out of competition, since Spike Lee was president of the jury. The out of competition slot is a beautiful showcase at Cannes. If Netflix says yes, they will come back through the big door and will be wonderfully welcomed. The decision is theirs.

However, films playing in competition must be released in French theaters. Our rule is that the Palme d’Or and films in competition must be discovered by all audiences. After a year of general catastrophe for theaters around the world, while platforms thrived (and often with brilliant movies from directors who come from the film world), the symbolic and concrete support to theaters is more crucial than ever.

By the way what do you mean by “miraculous,” in regards to no one expecting such a “miraculous” situation?

For instance, who could have imagined that the festival could be hosted without any seating cap inside theaters, since it was announced by the government that the seating restrictions will be lifted on June 30.

But you still had to push the festival from its initial May dates.

Yes, but we had planned it. Last fall, we announced a contingency plan in case May wasn’t feasible: early summer, late summer or the fall. We chose early summer. It was a good decision, especially July 6, it’s much better than July 25 which we preferred back then. Then came the vaccines, with a rollout that started slowly and accelerated enormously. Europe is catching up at full speed. And finally, the public health measures are more and more favorable. Cannes is in two months, and it will get better and better. Moreover, if we remember 2020, the sense of security will be strong throughout the summer, more so than in the fall when it could start all over again. This pandemic is endless. Cannes is taking place but we must repeat that the pandemic is not conquered. We will be cautious.

What special health protocols have you put in place for the festival?

Like all events with more than 1,000 people, the festival will be accessible to those who have a health pass, meaning people who are fully vaccinated, or have a negative PCR test, or an immunity to COVID-19 that dates back more than 15 days and less than 6 months. This will all soon be part of the “routine.” As for the rest, the event will put public measures in place in July. Those will evolve again in the weeks to come. But there again, we must not forget the virus. We will have to be disciplined, not forget the basic steps, masks and respecting others. There will be dinners but with tables of six people maximum, etc. We all know how to do that, and we all want to be reasonable and responsible.

Besides the changes you mentioned above, what other reforms are you planning this year?

There aren’t reforms but more a qualitative evolution that has emerged from brainstorming with Pierre Lescure and the administration board, in collaboration with the team that consults with professionals, the press, etc. We have started a process of modernizing the festival: internally, we created an international association called Amis du Cinema, on top of an endowment fund; the pursuit of our social actions to reach gender parity with the organization 50/50, with a tribute to Olivia de Havilland who was the first woman to preside over the jury in 1965. Pierre Lescure has also announced that he would like a woman to succeed him at the helm of the festival. Diversity, too, is crucial to us. Let’s remember that Spike Lee, on top of being a film master which allows him to be president of the jury, will be the first Black artist to preside over the jury of any major film festival. It was about time. We also want to make Cannes a more welcoming, perhaps less intimidating, place. These past decades, Cannes has placed universality at the core of its convictions. Cannes isn’t a French festival, it’s an international and universal festival.

You also announced some environmental measures?

Yes, this year we announced the foundations of a plan to reduce and compensate for the festival’s environmental footprint. It’s an effort that will be shared by the festival itself and festivalgoers who will have to donate $25 each. I will do it as well! We want to be exemplary on this issue. Moreover, we will have a special mini-program dedicated to films about the environment because we have received some beautiful documentaries. We started showing such documentaries a long time ago with Al Gore and Leonardo Di Caprio, and we’ll continue.

You often say that the Official Selection reflects the films that are part of it. How would you describe it at this point in time?

Even two weeks before the deadline, it’s difficult to define it. I think we will want to see films that speak about love, that tells the splendour of the world before, the power of our stories, the beauty of people… everything we couldn’t see before, before this pandemic forced us to reflect on our lives. I’m one of the people who never abandoned a utopia of a world after [the pandemic].

What flavor will this selection have?

The flavor of cinema! When the screen will lighten up, as it’s lit up since yesterday [when cinemas reopened in France] with extraordinary success and for the past few weeks around the world, we will regain sensations and emotions that we longed for and haven’t felt for a long time. It will be magnificent. We already have the music of the opening credits to Cannes, the one composed by Camille Saint-Saëns, in our heads. The desire to be at the center of ovations, perhaps boos… the particular atmosphere. A Cannes festival, it’s live spectacle — like the theater. Those who announce its passing are wrong. Even if we must never stop fighting.