Inside the Cannes Film Festival’s Ambitious Plan to Hold an In-Person Event During a Pandemic

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Courtesy of Everett Collection

Coronavirus cases have reached a five-month peak in France and the country is in the midst of yet another lockdown, but the worsening public health situation hasn’t deterred the Cannes Film Festival from moving forward with its plans to host an in-person event in early July.

Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Fremaux is in active discussions with U.S. studios and producers submitting films for consideration, sources familiar with the festival said, and is also seeking American jurors to join the panel that Spike Lee will preside over.

Fremaux is moving forward with the blessing of both the mayor of Cannes and the French government, who, insiders say, want the festival to take place as scheduled, between July 6 to July 17.

The artistic director has also been urging Wes Anderson and Disney’s Searchlight to screen “The French Dispatch” at Cannes, fulfilling the auteur’s initial intention to premiere the film on the Riviera, a plan that was scuttled in 2020 when the pandemic forced the festival to cancel. One film the festival is considering screening is Nicolas Cage starrer “Pig,” a drama about a truffle hunter searching for his kidnapped foraging pig.

One movie that does not seem destined for a Cannes bow, despite some rumors that it might be headed to France, is “Dune” — the Denis Villeneuve sci-fi epic starring Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya, which is more likely to debut at one of the fall festivals like Venice.

Despite the festival’s coaxing, it’s unclear if U.S. studios will have much of a presence on the Croisette given that executives and some A-list talent is wary of traveling internationally to promote a movie or see films for sale that could be viewed virtually. Moreover, prominent sales agents are planning to host a June online market, unaffiliated with the festival, where many of the glitzy packages that typically command eye-popping fees at Cannes will be on offer. That event will be held during the week of June 21.

Not to be outdone, the Cannes Marché is hosting its own May virtual sales event, which will largely be devoted to screening completed films that have a more commercial bent and aren’t meant to play on the festival circuit. But many U.S. sales agents felt the May date was too close to the recent Berlin Film Festival and are moving forward with the June virtual market instead to give themselves more time to attach directors and actors to hot scripts. Because that June event is expected to have some of the sexiest projects for sale, studios have privately told Variety that they are only planning to send small teams instead of their standard armies of executives to the Cannes Film Festival in July. Some may skip the festival entirely. Several publicists who rep A-list stars also say they do not expect their clients will be on hand for red carpet premieres because they will be too busy filming other projects.

“Companies might send less people, and instead of sending 10 people, they’ll have the CEO and two or three sales agents on the ground,” said Jerome Paillard, the head of the Cannes Marché du Film. “The presence of U.S. sales agents and talent agents will depend on whether or not they have films in the Official Selection. Of course, this year they might not make the trip if they are just looking to pre-sell films; they may not be willing to have the talent travel to Cannes to promote projects for platforms that are headquartered in L.A. That’s understandable.”

But Paillard still expects that buyers will be out in force at the May Cannes virtual market, even ones from the U.S. He notes that American companies currently comprise 20% of participants registered, followed by France and the U.K. All the major European sales companies, from Wild Bunch, to Match Factory, Studiocanal and TrustNordisk have confirmed they will attend.

In July, many of the luxury brands that have events tied to Cannes are moving forward with their plans to be on the ground for the film festival — Chanel, for instance, has rented Villa UGC, a luxurious penthouse located between the Carlton and Martinez hotels, to use for its promotional activity. The festival’s most sought-after invite, an annual gala benefitting the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), is moving ahead with a July 16 event and is already soliciting well-heeled hopefuls for pricey dinner tickets. In years past, the event has drawn attendance from A-listers like George Clooney and seen performances from Mariah Carey and Dua Lipa. The guest list is being cut in half for this iteration in order to comply with health guidelines and the event will not be held at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, which usually serves as the setting for the gala.

Star wattage may not be as high this year. Several of the largest talent publicity firms in the U.S. have yet to schedule a single star to attend the July event. Similarly, brokers for glam squads — the essential stylists and hair and makeup artists that facilitate the expected Cannes red carpet and party aesthetic — have yet to be booked for any events, sources said.

Even as Cannes higher-ups signal that they believe that they will be able to pull off an event attracting stars and filmmakers from around the globe, there are reports and rumors that the festival may move to the fall, particularly if coronavirus numbers continue to climb in France.

Some international sales agents have high hopes that the Cannes Film Festival will keep its July dates so they can get a respite from the Zoom calls and, once again, conduct business face-to-face.

“We are crossing our fingers that Cannes takes place, and if it does we will definitely be there, even if we come with less people than usual. It’s crucial for us to get back to the physical market,” said Susan Wendt, managing director of TrustNordisk, who reps Thomas Vinterberg’s lauded “Another Round.” “When you’re selling a film playing at the festival, the difference is really huge, because you get the Cannes atmosphere, with the press and everything.”

Cecile Gaget, president of international production at Anton Capital, a London-based financier, said the company is “planning on attending all three events — in May, June and July.” Anton Capital’s slate ranges from “Mothers’ Instinct,” a psychological thriller with Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway to the animation film “Fireheart” from the producers of “Intouchables.”

“During the virtual event in May we’ll be screening our completed films that are not aimed at festivals to secure distribution deals, and then in June, we’ll start pre-selling our hot English-language projects, while in July, we hope to be there with a film in the Official Selection,” said Gaget.

Cannes’ decision to plunge ahead with an in-person gathering comes as other global media events are struggling with whether or not to host live festivals and conferences in the COVID era. Tribeca, for instance, will be in-person, but the June festival will unfold in outdoor venues as a safety precaution. The Cannes Lions, an annual communications and advertising festival, is going in a different direction. The event was scheduled for late June, but is instead going virtual. Insiders believe Cannes Lions went online because the event relies heavily on major American companies hosting splashy events, including parties, which would have been very complicated to pull off due to the pandemic. MediaLink, the sister company of the Cannes Lions, will instead host some live events for the Lions during the International Festival of Creativity in New York City, according to Ad Age. The Cannes Film Festival, meanwhile, believes it can still move forward since the event is more focused on movie premieres rather than promotional events and parties, and is less U.S.-centric than Cannes Lions.

Festival organizers are still hammering out health protocols. It’s unlikely that attendees will have to present proof of vaccination. “Vaccines aren’t available to enough people, notably in Europe, so we can’t discriminate against people that way,” said a Cannes festival insider.

The vaccine rollout has had a slow start in France, but the festival is seizing on hopeful signs that more people are getting shots. France President Emmanuel Macron recently said during a televised address that people under 50 years old are expected to get their first shot in mid-June.

Some health measures that are being studied by the Cannes Film Festival and Cannes authorities include setting up testing stations throughout the city as well as around the Palais des Festivals, the main hub of moviegoing. The festival is also looking at measures to avoid having people stand in long lines. Press screenings, for instance, will now accept reservations instead of operating on a first-come, first-serve basis. There might also be a cap on seatings inside the main screening venues, notably the Louis Lumière auditorium which has 2,309 seats. If these venues are subjected to the same restrictions as French theaters, there could be a cap of 70% on seating capacities by early July. France’s cinemas have been shut down since the end of October and are expected to reopen in mid-May, Macron said during his recent address.

Paillard said it was too early to determine what the protocol in Cannes will be but said “it will be fully respectful of the regulations.” He also said that the market will make sure that there’s more space between booths to facilitate social distancing and the festival is also looking at hosting more outdoor events.

Even as questions swirl about how exactly Cannes will pull off a global festival in the midst of a pandemic, executives and agents have begun booking flights and rooms. Currently, about 90% of hotels are closed in Cannes, but many are planning to reopen starting in mid-May, according to a hotel owner.

But two of the Croisette’s most iconic venues will remain shuttered, as both the JW Marriott and the Carlton hotels are undergoing renovation, with the Carlton not scheduled to reopen until 2023. That leaves the Martinez and the Majestic and Gray d’Albion as the major hotel choices for guests looking to spend lavishly on suites, though many festgoers opt for apartment rentals instead.

Although July is a busy season for tourism in Cannes, local hotels will have the same rates as the ones they use in May for festivalgoers — which are actually higher than regular summer prices, said a hotel owner. Hotels are also being much more flexible with reservations. “Usually we ask guests to pay 50% when they make the reservations and pay in full six to eight weeks before the event, but we can’t ask that now, so we just demand an account to block the rooms,” said the hotel owner. Many venues have also told guests that they if they cancel their reservations by late May, they can get full refunds.

“Everything is a little up in the air right now,” says one agent. “But if the health situation looks better, I’m going. There are worse places to be than the South of France.”