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Life’s a Beach – an insider’s guide to working the Cannes Film Festival

Distribution experts Mick Southworth and Martin McCabe present their insiders guide to making the Cannes Film Festival market work for you…

For many film folk, there is a short period of time every May that represents the centrepiece of their professional and artistic lives. It is an opportunity to show off their bravura talent, commercial products, ability to wheel and deal, and, for some, even their dancing skills.

Yes, the Cannes Film Festival is upon us once again. Hoards of happy industry hopefuls will converge upon its sun-kissed coast, a gaggle of expense-crazed lemmings looking to bag themselves a major movie deal, simultaneously partying like teenagers into the wee small hours at one of the many social gatherings dominating the beachfront. But will they have any real chance of landing the deal, bagging a great film or even winning one of the coveted festival prizes? Or will they merely come away having acquired a touch of sunburn and a sore head?

A strong argument could be made that Cannes owes its origins to the rise of fascism in continental Europe. The first competitive European film festival was held in Venice in the early 1930s, and its chief awards became a source of some national pride. When, in 1938, Renoir’s La Grand Illusion was overlooked in favour of German entrant Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the French took umbrage at this perceived slight, withdrew from the festival and decided—with the help of their US and British jury member compatriots—to start their own.

Since its inception in 1939, Cannes has stood alone as the very incarnation of all that is glitzy, glamorous, yet noteworthy in our film industry. In 1954 the enduring palm leaf motif of the festival awards was introduced, and French sex kitten Simone Silva bared all for her art—and the admiring paps—during a photocall with Robert Mitchum. In the summer of 1968, the festival itself was closed down in the face of nationwide strikes and a general revolutionary fervour led by new-wave auteurs and previous festival darlings such as Godard, Truffaut and Malle. Strikes and occasional industrial unrest in the grand French tradition have sporadically raised their head since but despite all this—or perhaps because of—it remains an over-the-top yet strangely perfect merging of European art and integrity, with a nice dash of Hollywood excess and marketing savvy.

It is also perceived as the trading floor for the industry, providing instant access to financiers, sales executives, distributors, acquisition bosses, talent agents and their stars—all rubbing shoulders along the Croisette with major providers of key technical and administrative services to the industry. This is a place where established filmmakers and happy amateurs alike can take their embryonic project and, in just over a week, flesh it out commercially and come back with a green-lit movie. Well, that’s the theory at least. Sadly, it is a scenario that seldom, if ever, materialises.

For many, the reality of Cannes is somewhat less a magic kingdom paved with gold, and more like a 24-7 factory churning out hot air. It is a place where many hear pretty much what they want to over a glass of Domaines Ott, as companies and individuals, with little or no financial resources or ability to deliver, make grand promises, only for those undertakings to disappear once the last orders bell is called at the Petit Majestic. In many cases it’s not malicious and, in truth, it’s probably down as much to the sunshine and opulent setting as anything else. The whole event does seem to bring out both the best and worst in many people. It is therefore vital that one keeps one’s feet firmly on the ground, and not get carried away in the swirl and hysteria of the moment.

The Brits can turn up with their heads held high this year and feel confident about the industry back home. Inward investment in new UK film production is up, reaching £1.15bn in 2010 across some 119 films, a new record, according to the newly-departed UK Film Council. Of that, a staggering £928.9m is accounted for by international investment in such dependable franchises as Harry Potter, X-Men, Sherlock Holmes and Pirates of the Caribbean. Box-office takings are up, breaking through the £1bn barrier for the second year running with domestic productions representing a fifth of that total. The King’s Speech has redefined UK and international success, with a unique performance that has smashed through the crossover threshold and defied most commercial box-office logic. Despite its numerous garlands and intrinsic merits, it’s probably more a statistical anomaly than a renaissance for British film but, just as the notion of cinematic cultural identity may be blurred, the UK business is showing some signs that it’s beginning to thrive, and The King’s Speech can certainly be seen as a signifier of some potentially interesting changes.

Buoyed by entrepreneurs and innovators from the finance, post and technology sectors, as well as some forward-thinking independent distributors with an eye on locally-sourced, low-risk production opportunities, new formulas for content origination and distribution are slowly arising from the old. Leading this charge are LoveFilm, post-production houses such as Molinare (a significant investor in The King’s Speech), commercial investment by Pinewood Studios, and canny distributors like Optimum and Revolver, with many others beginning to follow suit.

Then there is the new EIS legislation which looks set to make UK film investment a lot more attractive going forward. Lastly and certainly not least, if the BFI and Film Council restructuring initiative delivers on its promise with its post-Olympics Lottery funding, then a lot of very good filmmakers should be singing Dixie. The fact that a lauded and smart media professional such as Greg Dyke is now in the main chair, having operated at the highest levels of the UK broadcast industry for some 30 years, gives us industry folk some real hope for the future of independent production, and the business in general. Compared to 14 years ago, when then Labour culture secretary Chris Smith announced the first three Lottery film franchises and the creation—and some might unkindly say false dawn—of a ’sustainable British film industry’, one might venture to suggest that commercial British film activity, in all its many forms, is actually in rude financial health.

So, does the UK’s recent good performance and impending financial reinvigoration mean the international film community will be throwing their doors open and begging us all to come in, pull up a chair and talk turkey down in Cannes this year? Nah. Cannes is a crap shoot played out at 200 miles per hour. Clearly, though, if you are touting a low-budget project with no real star value attached, and you wish to discuss it with a reputable sales company, then there might be better places than Cannes to achieve success. Executives are busy selling hard and trying to get back their market expenses on product they can actually see, feel and transact on, there and then; when you’ve been hitting Cannes year after year on a product truffle hunt, the last thing you really want is back-to-back meetings with people you could meet in London. In truth, very few have any available time on their hands to read a script. If they do, they are probably more tourist than industry player; diaries are jammed full and relaxation is limited. Sure, you can get a meet with some of the service providers and banks—but you can do that back in Blighty. So, if you are there on the off chance and spending your own money, why go at all?

Well, that’s easy. Cannes is a unique adrenaline rush that gives a fantastic insight into the mood of the industry and the products that will, and are, selling. It’s a giant compass, plotting the direction of the commercial market of film and the trends, technologies and fashions that will dictate the path ahead. You can get the right kind of meetings, but you have to set them up well in advance. Just turning up and hoping you will be able to get a diary full of ‘real’ meetings is unrealistic.

Speaking as distributors, there are better markets for the acquisition of new product, such as the AFM. Most of the best films have been sold well before Cannes starts, and the market section is pretty tame. So, what is Cannes good for? Well, if you can navigate the bull merchants and target important people with whom you would normally struggle to get eye-to-eye time, it’s best for networking. It’s also a fantastic industry knees-up, of course. You almost certainly won’t make your fortune down there, but it will help make living in such a tough and uncertain industry that much more bearable. We are lucky it exists. Do librarians have a similar shindig? See you on the Croisette!

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 22 (May/June 2011)

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2 Responses to Life’s a Beach – an insider’s guide to working the Cannes Film Festival

  1. Cannes news Reply

    August 18, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Yep, that’s about it. It’s always worth reminding people – especially festival virgins – that although Cannes is indeed the glitzy roller-coaster you hear about, it is also a particularly exhausting environment. I’m not talking about the party scene, I’m talking about the day-to-day struggle to set up appointments, pitch, work out if the person you’re meeting is bona-fide, cancelling lunch (again) for a last-minute meeting, running (literally) to the next one across town, resist that extra glass or two of rosé so as not to start talking total tosh to strangers, etc. And all the time there’s a nagging feeling that you’ll be going home without a deal. Repeat and rinse for a week.

    It also has its moments of biz pathos. Three or four years ago, a man collapsed on the Croisette clutching reels of film. When he came to, he couldn’t remember who or where he was but wouldn’t let go of the reels. Is somebody still waiting for him to turn up for their meeting? Unlikely. They had probably cancelled anyway.

  2. CannesGuide.com Reply

    March 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

    It’s good to see some realistic commentary on the value of the Cannes Film Festival for newer filmmakers. The ghost of myth of Sundance in the 1990s still seems to permeate independent filmmakers’ attitudes toward Cannes and many are disappointed when they find that showing up with a poster and a trailer for a film that isn’t made yet, doesn’t get you a multi-million dollar deal with Harvey Weinstein.

    If you are a first-timer, definitely checkout Cannes – A Festival Virgin’s Guide (www.cannesguide.com) which has been helping Cannes virgins make sense of it all since 1997.

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