To a recent arrival, strolling down the Croisette for the first time since May 2019, it could seem like nothing ever happened.
Save for the Carlton, which is under renovation until 2023, all the hotels will be up and running, as will the restaurants and bars. The beaches will be busy, the sun at full strength and the nightlife in full swing. One might daydream about what it was like for the past 16 months.
“It was a catastrophe,” says Max Rothman, an American transplant who has run the Cannes Concierge rental service for two decades. “Economically speaking, I think Cannes was the hardest hit city in the country.”
The numbers indeed are staggering. After Paris, Cannes remains the country’s largest host of expos and shows, the second largest recipient of business travel. Without any significant industrial base, the tourism market alone accounts for 50% of the city’s GDP. How else do you account for the 500 restaurants in a city with fewer than 75,000 inhabitants?
And then there’s the Cannes Film Festival, an economic supercharge, a rising tide that lifts all yachts. Leave aside the bars and restaurants and consider the dry cleaners, makeup artists, drivers and printers that benefit from the two-week bonanza that brings 2,300 jobs and just under €200 million ($242 million) to the city.
Now imagine a year without all that.
“Everybody mentioned their favorite post-apocalyptic movie,” says Rothman. “For me, it was ‘The Omega Man.’ All you saw were barren streets.”
Locked down from March until May of 2020 and then once more from last October until earlier this June, local hoteliers and restaurant owners managed to squeak by last summer thanks to domestic tourists and some from neighboring countries. Those relying on the event-based economy weren’t so lucky.
Rothman, who rents 75-100 central apartments to industry pros coming for the festival and subsequent trade shows, including Variety staff, says he lost “somewhere between 99[%] and 100%” of his annual revenue in 2020 and doesn’t hold out hope for a better 2021.
“This year is shot,” he says. “We’re six months in, and already the MipTV show was cancelled, the [Cannes] Lions got cancelled, and the Mipim show in September is not going to pick up the slack.”
“I’m a pretty optimistic guy but I’m cautious,” he adds. “I’m not expecting the gates to open wide and for people to just resume as they had done before.”
A slower festival won’t turn the matter around. A combination of travel restrictions, irregular vaccine rollouts and general travel skittishness will give the Cannes Film Festival a much smaller footprint this year. So far, the festival has received 20,000 accreditation requests – down 50% from previous years – while the Marché de Film is expected to host 40% of its usual delegates. The option to participate remotely has also had a significant impact.
That being said, some caution against any one to one comparisons between this and any prior festival edition.
“We can’t compare 2019 to 2021,” says Christine Welter, president of Cannes’ Hoteliers Union. “Between the two we had to live through 2020. We’re still living through something we’ve never experienced before.”
Like Rothman, business owners in the hotel union received direct assistance from the French state, which offered monthly indemnities based on the business’ mean 2019 income, divided by 12 and with a cap at $12,000. On top of that, the national government offered partial furloughs to hospitality workers unable to work for 12 of the past 16 months.
As local businesses cut costs to a bare minimum, the municipal authorities also played their part; since March 2020 the City of Cannes has injected $18 million in aid, mostly by way of organizing buy-local campaigns and delivery services, setting up social, legal and psychological resources for those affected by the crisis and by waiving just under $3.6 million in rent exemptions.
Whereas in previous years, the film festival accounted for 20% of local hotels’ annual revenue, the July edition should promise a smaller if nevertheless significant return. In terms of reservation rates, the city’s 120 hotels – all of which will be open, Carlton notwithstanding – were as of late June at 50% capacity for the first week of the festival. That number notched to 60% for Croisette facing hotels on week two, and 30% for those hotels further from the main drag.
Thanks to government employment insurance, the city’s 120 hotels kept their staffs, and will return fully operational by early July, charging standard summer rates during the festival period instead of the higher ones usually levied in May. But for the industry to thrive, it will need a steady revenue well after the summer season.
“Our biggest hope is for it to hold out,” says Welter. “If we can’t operate throughout the rest of the year, that’s the end. This time last year, we were quite optimistic, and then the borders closed again at the end of August and we had to close with them. Today, we’re going to try to make it work, but if we have to close back again in the fall, we’ll be closing for good.”
In order to prevent that, the city and its myriad local businesses can only stand to benefit from a film festival that goes off without a hitch. On the health front, the city has invested $121,000 in safety certifications, along with wastewater analysis for rapid contamination feedback and rapid testing centers in and around the Palais.
The regional vaccination campaigns are also a reason for optimism. In the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, where Cannes is located, vaccination rates slightly outpace the national average; by the time the festival nears, a notch below 50% of the population will have received at least one dose. The city of Cannes is taking an even more aggressive approach; on June 15 it opened eligibility to all residents over the age of 12.
“If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that COVID make any kind of prediction extremely difficult,” says Alain Lahouti, president of Cannes’ Restaurant Union. “We can just say that there’s been a concerted effort on the part of the city, festival, hotels, storeowners, and restaurants to make this festival a success.”
Employees at Cannes’ 500 dining establishments weathered the storm with furlough benefits, while owners received a similar direct government indemnity. Lahouti tells Variety that his union has requested an extension of these “indispensable life preservers” at least until September, or until locals get back on their feet.
For now, they’re looking to staff up. Though the establishments remained, a substantial number of staff left the industry and sometimes even left town, so the local employment market is now seeing a swath of food service hires.
“We’re in the eye of the storm right now, so it’s too soon to say the rate of new employment, but clearly there’s been a sharp rise,” Lahouti explains.
Newly free from capacity restrictions, which limited indoor spaces to 50% and forced an 11 p.m. closing time, Cannes’ dining rooms and terraces are now allowed to fill to the brim for as late as they choose.
As the festival draws near, the union head has one strong wish.
“It will be a real pleasure to hear American accents coming from our terraces again,” he says. “Cannes is open, and everyone is welcome, so it will give me great joy to hear those voices again.”