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Later this month is the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival, running from May 17 to 28. The Festival’s slate, as always, has many exciting new releases in and out of competition: ranging from David Cronenberg’s long-awaited Crimes of the Future and South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first film in six years to screenings of Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis. Other sections are devoted to short films, student films, documentaries, and new restorations of classics like Orson Welles’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Martin Scorsese’s legendary concert documentary The Last Waltz.

For several decades now, Cannes has been the world’s most preeminent film festival, showcasing countless films from countries across the globe and establishing the careers of hundreds of different international filmmakers. Its prestige and geography have become so iconic that many directors have even used the festival as a location, ranging from Brian De Palma’s erotic thriller Femme Fatale to Hong Sang-soo’s light comedy Claire’s Camera.

Running alongside the Festival, the Cannes film market – named the Marché du Film – is responsible for the screenings and sales of thousands more movies each year, uniting directors, producers, sales agents, and distributors from dozens of countries.

The Marché du Film

However, new directions in the film industry worldwide, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on cinemas everywhere, have caused all film festivals (including Cannes) to re-evaluate their public exhibition and market screening processes going forward. The 2020 edition of the Festival, for instance, was canceled altogether, once it become clear in-person screenings would not be possible. Unlike South by Southwest or Tribeca festivals, the virtual cinema format was not an option for Cannes. For them, seeing movies on the big screen, with an audience in the cinema is the true experience.

The rise of digital film marketplaces like Vuulr also challenges the enterprise of events like the Marché du Film, giving buyers and sellers around the world a chance to do business without having to spend thousands of dollars on travel and attendance fees. Whether such an established institution like Cannes should – or even could – adapt to the shifting tides, or resist them altogether, remains to be seen.

History and Impact of Cannes

Originally created as a challenger to the success and prestige of the Venice Film Festival, the first edition of Cannes was set for the fall of 1939, but was delayed because of the start of World War II and the Nazi invasion and occupation of France from 1940 to 1945. The first Festival finally took place in 1946, and its slate was littered with films about the war: Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Notorious, David Lean’s romantic drama Brief Encounter, and Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist war movie Rome Open City among others. Every edition of the Festival since has screened at least a couple of movies that have since been canonized. Directors ranging from Ingmar Bergman to Quentin Tarantino became important fixtures of the Festival; the films and their presence at the Festival worked together and mutually emphasized the prestige and significance of each other.

Poster for the 1st Cannes Film Festival in 1946

Importantly, Cannes has not just been a key marker through the history of cinema from 1946 onward; the Festival has dramatically affected the history of the medium, and indeed birthed or transformed cultural trends. Its particular focus on European art housed cinema has had a tremendous impact on how countries like France, Italy, Germany, and others view their national cinema – and how their national cinema is seen by the rest of the world. Showcasing those films also helped elevate the cinematic form to be seen as an artistic medium worthy of serious study alongside literature, painting, and music.

The Festival even has a place in recent French national history: for example, Cannes was canceled in May 1968 out of solidarity with striking students and other protestors. Interestingly, the conflict from that year’s Festival led to some French filmmakers organizing an independent section of the Festival, the Directors’ Fortnight. This section has served as an alternate, non-competitive format of Cannes, where directors like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Jim Jarmusch received attention early in their careers. Its relationship to Cannes is similar to that of Slamdance and Sundance, a smaller offshoot of a popular festival that seeks to showcase unknown or emerging talented filmmakers.

Protests during a screening at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival

Of course, Cannes is just as much a prestigious media event as it is a Film Festival, and takes care to include more popular films out of competition – Hollywood studio titles with big-name stars and large budgets, like the Elton John biopic Rocketman or the Star Wars prequel spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story. Another way the Festival receives media attention is through controversial titles. The Festival has presented films that have caused several patrons to walk out midway through. These much-publicized walkouts generate more positive than negative press: recently, David Cronenberg even said he expects some viewers of his latest film will only last five minutes before leaving.

Given the best film in the main competition section, the Festival’s highest award, the Palme d’Or, also gets plenty of press attention. Winners of the award have often gone on to be incredibly successful, both in terms of box office success and winning awards. Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Quentin Tarantino’s second film Pulp Fiction each won the Palme d’Or the year their movies were in competition. Those wins helped launch the careers of both directors — and earned each Academy Award nominations months later.

Bong Joon-ho’s class thriller Parasite won the Palme in 2019, and went on to became one of the highest-grossing foreign films in the United States – due in no small part to its winning the Oscar for Best Picture, the first for a foreign-language film. Other Palme d’Or winners, however, have not received similar attention. Last year, the body horror movie Titane won the Palme, but only made a fraction of the impact that Drive My Car – another film in the Competition section that year – had.

Parasite director Bong Joon-ho celebrating after winning the Palme d’Or

“It’s such a unique experience. It’s so unexpected… It took all of us sharing our experiences. We shared the mystery of the unexpected way this film took us through different genres and mixed them and spoke in a funny, humorous, tender way with no judgment of something so irreverent and urgent. It’s so global but in such a local film. We were all fascinated by it since we saw it. It kept growing and growing. It was a unanimous decision.”

Cannes jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu on Parasite

Back to Business at the Marché du Film

It took over a decade after the first edition of Cannes before the Marché du Film was established as a parallel but connected film market. More than 60 years later, the event remains the most popular venue for business deals in the film industry, with 12,000 professionals in attendance from around the world and over 4,000 films and other projects screened. Like the Film Festival, the market is also not limited solely to arthouse cinema; there are several different segments that cater to specific parts of the global film industry. One example is Frontières, a film market specifically focused on genre filmmaking. Organized in partnership with the Fantasia Film Festival, the event features different sections for filmmakers: a Proof of Concept section where filmmakers can secure final financing on their projects, and a Frontier Buyer Showcase where works-in-progress or recently completed films are screened for distributors and sales agents.

Statistics on the nationalities of films screened during the virtual 2020 Marché du Film

Another key part of the Marché du Film is Cinando, a massive online database of film projects meant for streaming and widespread networking for film professionals. When the Covid-19 pandemic put the world on lockdown in early 2020, the Marché du Film was able to transition temporarily online using Cinando through virtual screenings, video calls between industry professionals, and virtual booths and conferences for different sections of the market. The next year, the market returned to an in-person event. In the meantime, however, other digital film markets like Vuulr have emerged that – unlike ​​the Marché du Film – are available year-round and completely online. As we discussed in our “The International Film Marketplace” article, there are both benefits and costs to returning to in-person screenings and events for film markets, especially in our new post-Covid world.

Booth advertising the database Cinando at the Marché du Film

Celebrating its 75th birthday in 2022, the legacy of Cannes is undeniable: as a Film Festival, a market for the industry, a media event filled with glitz and glamor, and a place for filmmakers across the globe to showcase their work. Nevertheless, the industry is only just recovering from the shock of Covid two years ago, coupled with challenges from other mediums like television and the dominance of streaming services. How the Festival and market respond to those changes will be seen soon enough. 

This article is part one of a three-part series on this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Next week, we will focus on the Marché du Film: its importance in the global film industry, its different sections, and its place in the new film market landscape. The week after, we will take a closer look at the film slate for this year’s edition of Cannes and how they reflect and disrupt current trends in the Film Festival’s history and film culture today.

Walter Nicoletti
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