UPDATED: After several hours of heated debates, Iris Knobloch, the former boss of WarnerMedia France and Germany, has been chosen by the board of the Cannes Film Festival to become its first woman president, Variety has learned. Taking over on July 1 for a three-year term, Knobloch will succeed Pierre Lescure, who was re-elected for a third time in June 2020 and is planning to step down after the upcoming edition.
The German-born, Paris-based executive was elected by the board of directors of the Association Française du Festival International du Film, which brings together public authorities and film industry professionals, amid much controversy in France. The festival confirmed the news on Wednesday evening via a press release and said the election was held via secret ballot as always.
Knobloch stepped down from WarnerMedia in June 2021 after a 25-year tenure in various leadership roles. Before leaving the company, she oversaw the strategy as well marketing activities for WarnerMedia France, Benelux, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Shortly after, she launched a $300-million European special purpose acquisition company with powerful backers, including the French billionaire businessman Francois-Henri Pinault, who happens to run the luxury brand Kering, an official sponsor of Cannes Film Festival.
During her tenure at WarnerMedia, Knobloch played a crucial role in getting Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” into Cannes’ competition in 2011 before it went on to win five Oscars. She was one of the members of this year’s Oscar committee in France, alongside Cannes Film Festival’s director Thierry Fremaux.
“As a heartfelt European, I have always stood for cinema throughout my career, both in France and internationally, and I’m thrilled to be able to give my all so that this world event remains influential,” stated Knobloch, who described Cannes as “a major event that is key to keeping alive the cultural life of a world that, more than ever, desperately needs it.”
Although Knobloch may be open to seeing platforms return to the festival under certain conditions, she remains a big supporter of the theatrical experience. “A film of cinema seen in a theater remains a key artistic expression and the Festival de Cannes, with its selection so unique, shows the way every year,” she said.
“I can’t wait to start a collective debate with the Board of Directors, General Delegate Thierry Frémaux, and all of the film industry players to carry on what has been accomplished and to map out the future history in the light of the new challenges coming,” added Knobloch.
Commenting on the outcome of the election, Fremaux said the arrival of Knobloch “will help strengthen the festival’s resolve to stay as close to its beliefs as possible.”
“We have many challenges coming our way and we will do our utmost to make sure cinema — and the festival that embodies it — occupy the position they deserve while strongly affirming their artistic and political necessity,” said Fremaux.
While he will continue spearheading all creative decisions and discussions with international players and filmmakers, having a former U.S. studio executive like Knobloch as president of Cannes could help lure more Americans to premiere their films on the Croisette.
Ahead of the election, a segment of the French industry, including members of Cannes’ board, flagged a potential conflict of interest due to Knobloch’s acquisition company, which she launched last year and is meant to invest in entertainment and leisure industries. While she presides over Cannes, Knobloch will continue spearheading the banner but has committed to not invest in any film-related assets that could have a connection to Cannes, according to an industry source.
Others have voiced their concerns over the fact that Cannes should be presided over by a French national. Lastly, some people have pointed out that Knobloch had been pushed forward by high-profile figures tied to the French government, notably Dominique Boutonnat, the president of the National Film Board who is still under a formal investigation for an alleged sexual assault.
It’s not the first time, however, that a French executive has landed a high-powered position with the support of the country’s highest political circle. Lescure, a resourceful journalist and top-level media executive who co-founded the pay TV group Canal Plus in 1984, was close to then-President Francois Hollande when he took the helm of the festival in 2014. The festival was previously presided over by Gilles Jacob for 13 years.
The Cannes Film Festival will announce the Official Selection of its 75th edition on April 14.