How Cannes Pulled Off an In-Person Film Festival by Spending More Than $1 Million on COVID Testing (EXCLUSIVE)

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Michael Buckner for PMC

The 74th annual Cannes Film Festival beat the odds by delivering two weeks of nonstop movies — and major stars such as Matt Damon, Regina King and Timothée Chalamet — in the middle of a global pandemic.

It wasn’t an easy task. Variety has learned that the festival fronted more than $1 million to cover the costs of regular, free COVID testing to approximately 28,000 attendees. Those from the European Union could bypass such procedures by showing proof of vaccination, but there were no guarantees that people wouldn’t get sick as the Delta variant spread globally.

When French actor Léa Seydoux, who had three films in competition, canceled her trip to Cannes after testing positive for COVID-19, which she contracted on a movie set, some feared that it was the beginning of a wave of cases.

But so far, there have been no reports of major outbreaks out of Cannes. Even rumors that French President Emmanuel Macron would shut down the festival proved unfounded, as the country’s stricter rules for admission into cultural events didn’t go into effect until post-Cannes.

“It was a wonderful festival and an exceptional one as well,” Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s artistic director, tells Variety after the conclusion of the festivities on July 17. “We managed to pull it through at the right time and in conditions that were almost normal thanks to a protocol that was intelligent and responsible.”

International stars and top-level executives turned up in big numbers. Adam Driver jetted to France for the world premiere of the opening-night musical, “Annette.” Wes Anderson’s comedy, “The French Dispatch,” scored a nine-minute standing ovation for its A-list cast, including Chalamet, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. Bucking Cannes tradition, the ensemble showed up together in a party bus instead of a chauffeured car.

Spike Lee, the festival’s first Black jury president, basked in the spotlight. He went viral for accidentally revealing the winner of the Palme d’Or — “Titane,” a provocative drama in which a woman gets impregnated by a car — at the top of the Cannes Awards. Other festival highlights included Damon tearing up during the standing ovation for “Stillwater” and the premiere of “Aline,” an over-the-top biopic inspired by Celine Dion’s life.

“We had not imagined that the reunion would be so sumptuous,” says Frémaux, who admits that he had never seen so many standing ovations at Cannes.

It also proved to be a festival of firsts in other ways. “Titane” director Julia Ducournau became the inaugural woman to win a solo Palme d’Or. Frémaux says the prize was chosen by a “historic jury, presided by a Black artist and mainly composed by women. It’s a win which reflects the world as it is, and the festival’s aspiration to be inclusive, pioneering and modern.”

As for the dealmaking, it wasn’t as brisk as in normal times. Distributors, who are still unsure about the calculus of theatrical ticket sales, exercised caution. But when the dust had settled, Cannes counted enough high-profile pacts to leave most buyers happy.

“Nothing will ever replace the powerful experience of watching a film on a big screen at a festival,” says Grégoire Melin of Kinology, the sales banner behind “Annette” and Nadav Lapid’s “Ahed’s Knee.” “We’ve seen that selling films based on virtual screenings takes longer without the word of mouth.”

Many of the major indie players, including Neon, A24, IFC Films and Sony Pictures Classics, left France with new titles for their upcoming slates.

“Frémaux was able to bring filmmakers together and bring a slate of pretty remarkable films under such pressure and difficulty,” says Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics co-chief, who bought Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” ahead of its Grand Prize win at Cannes. “Almost all the films I saw were of a very high quality.”

Sony Pictures also scored big in France with “Mothering Sunday,” an awards hopeful set in the 1920s directed by Eva Husson. Barker says the festival’s biggest achievement was turning the spotlight back on moviegoing.

“As we have spent the lockdown watching these movies on the small screen, you can certainly see the big difference and the impact of the large screen,” Barker says. “At Cannes we got a real sense that that large-screen viewing is not going to go away.”

Nathanaël Karmitz, the boss of MK2 Films, which had nine films at Cannes, including Joachim Trier’s prize-winning “The Worst Person in the World,” agreed.

“It was a rebirth in many ways, feeling again the collective pleasure, seeing artists and seeing Cannes, the world’s biggest film festival, kick off a new beginning for the indie film world after a long break,” says Karmitz, who’s been attending Cannes for 20 years.

Although the competition lineup was slightly overloaded with French movies, the festival as a whole felt truly international.

“People had said, ‘The Americans won’t be present at Cannes,’ but ultimately the decent amount of deals shows that there’s still an interest for prestige movies playing at the festival,” says Anton exec Cécile Gaget, who sold “Curs>r” to Netflix at the start of the fest.

Now, all eyes will be on the fall film festivals — Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York — to see if they can replicate the same success.