OPINION: #cannesfestival2020, an enigma wrapped in mystery with a cliffhanger that’s … never coming?

Last Updated: April 21, 2020By Tags:

And  now, for the Cannes Festival press release that announces little, leaves much to speculation and wraps up with a note of mystery while flirting with contradiction–and causes much collective eye-rolling in people, one would assume? It did in me, at least. I am rolling my eyes right now, at this strange bird of a message received in my inbox at 6 p.m. Paris time this Tuesday. It began thus:

“Following the declaration made by the President on April 13th, we are acknowledging that the postponement that had been under consideration for the end of June, early July for the 73rd edition of the Cannes Festival, is no longer possible. It henceforth appears difficult to believe that the Cannes Festival can be held this year under its initial shape.”

This much had already become clear ever since President Emmanuel Macron’s televised address last night (it began at 8:02 p.m. sharp, to allow for the daily national applause in the window in tribute to medical staff everywhere, battling this terrible pandemic that has brought the world to a halt, to take place) in which he foresaw a nation gradually returning to cruising speed, starting May 11th, with the caveat that all leisure- and arts-related, events-based, activities would be postponed until late in the summer.

It continues:

“nevertheless, we began last night [only last night?] a consultation process with professional circles here and abroad, and all have agreed that the Cannes Festival, which is an essential instrument for supporting the film industry, must continue [together with our partners and the industry], to look at all of the possibilities that would allow us to carry on with the movie year by making the Cannes 2020 films exist, one way or the other.”

No announcement has been made, as of this writing, as to what this year’s selection will be. A press conference was to be held in Paris this week to that end. Still, this quote is a little contradictory and leaves me wondering, did they really start only yesterday to think about other options besides the long-ago doomed brick-and-mortar option at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes in May, June or July?

The rest of the press release went (here I paraphrase a little):

“the importance that cinema occupies in our lives, that everyone involved in the film industry does, they must be thanked, as well as our partners. Everyone knows that many uncertainties still reign upon the current international health crisis. We hope to be able to communicate on the form that Cannes 2020 will take very quickly.”

Oh, out with it, already!

Thierry Frémaux on the red carpet (Cannes Festival)


A little bit of tough love never hurt anyone. “Qui aime bien, châtie bien,” as the French are fond of saying. At least, it should not. As I described in a previous opinion piece, the coronavirus crisis, a pandemic of armageddon-like scale that has seen nearly half of the world’s population go on standby, likely has pushed Thierry Frémaux and, to a lesser extent, Pierre Lescure, into a tight and uncomfortable corner. One would be remiss not to feel a warm, and special, kind of sympathy towards these men.

Lescure is the President of the festival, an ambassadorship post that lends continuity and prestige (Lescure is the co-founder of CanalPlus–a media organization that has gone from cable TV channel to worldwide behemoth in the last forty years–and a respected figure in France’s audiovisual world and a regular fixture on France’s daytime shows) to the Cannes Festival, but Frémaux is a moving target, careers are made and broken over the decisions that he, and his team, make, all year, every year, as to which films will feature in the official selection. Common sense and my own fourteen-year long experience going to Cannes as part of the press corps lead me to deduce that, Frémaux is answerable to the film world as a whole, and Lescure to the festival’s board of directors and the French state, all the way to the president.

Wrong or right, it’s safe to assume that Frémaux and Lescure (and let’s not forget Christian Jeune, Frémaux’s right-hand man in the selection process) have suffered a few sleepless nights these last few weeks trying to confront, and confort filmmakers and producers in want of answers.

Just imagine all the men and women who have spent one, two, maybe three, years on the same project, carrying it from mere jottings on a page to fully-accomplished film, waiting, expectantly, for an answer from the festival, and then putting the final touches on it. Some of these filmmakers just now were about to lock themselves up in the editing room, bookings and hirings were made, security deposits spent. The many calls Frémaux must’ve taken, from frantic producers and gloomy cinéastes, insults, threats, maybe, were hurled at him? Who knows? I’m not there. I don’t know the guy.

Let’s recap: a new press release has been issued, it doesn’t say much, except that we now know that a physical festival will not be held–let us weep, for this is, frankly, some terrible news to be served–but the Cannes people are leaving open the possibility for some other form for the festival to take on. One can only assume the Cannes digital era has begun? And what a brave new world that would be, ladies and gents.

Nothing is sacred, that’s my motto.

Not even films that are projected on a big screen.

The Cannes Festival is a festival of its epoch but traditionalism features prominently (and why should it not? The French invented cinema, after all), and with it the desire for films to be seen inside movie theaters. It’s understandable, I can relate.

My greatest pleasure in life is sitting inside the Lumière Theater at 8:30 in the morning during the Cannes Festival, everyday, for eleven days, with some two thousand other film-lovers and journalists (that’s when the real deal shows up, the soldiers, the thinkers, the cinephiles, absent the tourists, the partiers and the posers for whom cinema is but a pretext to augment their address books and blast their Instagram feeds with selfies) to be confronted by cinema in all its grandeur and its light. It’s a spiritual thing, almost.

But this traditionalism has also worked against the festival, and I am part of the fringe, as far as the following opinion goes, I know.

A little background: there was that time, in 2018, when none of the Netflix offerings, including Alfonso Cuaron’s drama “Roma,” made it to the competition slate, or any slate, because Netflix boss Ted Sarandos did not want to comply with a recently-reinstated Cannes Festival policy that requires films running in competition to get a theatrical release in France afterward. The kicker is that films that go the theatrical route in France must steer clear of streaming platforms for a whole three years after that, a compromise that Sarandos was not willing to make.

The real, real kicker of the story? The Cannes Festival reinstated this rule that year, where none existed, or was enforced, at least, before this– they put exhibitors before progress, a mark against them, in my opinion, a choice redolent of traditionalism and chauvinism. I have nothing against exhibitors, far from it. Life in Paris would be depressing without all the magnificent and lively movie theaters that dot the landscape, everyone needs to it. But the decision was overzealous. But, and everyone knows this, for years, now, there has been a glut of films squeezing through the theatrical pipeline. Catherine Deneuve herself was heard complaining about it a few years ago. The French production machine has been in overdrive for a long time. Too many films! I don’t think the newly-reinstated policy did much in the way of helping exhibitors, who have way too much product to work with as it is.

And so, we didn’t get to see “Roma” at Cannes.


Fast-forward to the Era of the Great Sickness.

A few weeks ago, I had contacted a colleague with a French daily about an idea I had for an online Cannes Festival, for an article in this column. In a bid to join forces with other journalists and help find a financial solution to the fact that the Alpes-Maritimes region will lose up to 200 million euros ($219m US) in case of the festival getting canceled, I wanted to take the temperature with him, others. In the event that Cannes would go digital, would other colleagues be prepared to pay an access fee, as I was, to watch the selection via streaming, the proceeds from it which would be repaid to the Region where the Festival takes place? I wanted to develop an idea together and offer up support, also find out what sort of technical resources would have to be taken into account by the Festival to launch the kind of platform that would accommodate a fully-digital festival to be delivered online. I received no response. I assumed from his silence that my suggestion for paid access was considered “ridicule” and “impensable” by him.

And yet, here we are today, looking at the real possibility of an online festival. Where do I get this information? Nowhere. Pure deduction. Maybe I am lacking in imagination here, but if it’s not a physical festival, it’s got to be digital, right?

And I find that exciting. But the financial loss to the region remains.

Thierry Frémaux and Pierre Lescure (right) at the press conference in April 2019 during which that year’s films were unveiled for the press corps


However do you swing this, going from red carpet and banners and microphones and projectors to an ID and a password? One thing for sure, the wheel need not be reinvented. Maybe Ted Sarandos’s Netflix engineers could devise an opt-in site for festival-goers only, thus allowing #cannes2020 to air off of a Netflix-based portal? Vimeo is another option, with Youtube clearly being the most probable one, given their broad resources and know-how.

Let’s wait and see. There isn’t much choice around this, anyway. The Cannes Festival organization has decreed a near-total embargo on information for its own 2020 edition, and I’m not sure why. Well, I am, a little. I think that these delays in the decisionmaking process is a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, what with, from Cannes’s own org chart on up to departmental authorities (the Alpes Maritime region), the Cannes mayor, the festival’s executive board (I explain all this in my previous piece, linked below).

If Cannes 2020 is to be an online festival films slated for 2020 will be seen, they will premiere at Cannes, virtually, and Cannes can boast of having taken one hugely bold step forward, one that will place it way ahead of other festivals, like Berlin and Venice in terms of vision, novelty and initiative. Oh what a coup this will be!

Full text of the press release here (English follows the French version)

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