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Reflections on Cannes: Festival Egos & Marché Ids Revel in the Calm Before the Storm

Reflections on Cannes and the pirates of the Mediterranean

This year’s Cannes Film Festival has now come and gone as a global industry grapples with who we are and recent memory of the Covid tempest dulls the sense that another altogether different storm approaches. 

One can find comedy and tragedy in equal measure along la Croissette at any time of year. Each May, however, the Festival du Film focuses its lenses on drama and adventure. The chase scenes are haut couture. The sex scenes unrated. One thing alone drives the plot. Money. Not just money. Other People’s Money. All of those men, women and corporate execs who come to Cannes with cheques to write and insider access to pay for.

The experience is dizzying. 

A week of recovery after the 77th Cannes Film Festival drew to its glamorous, over-indulged close allows us to reflect on a film industry weathered by recent storms. The glamour was still there, of course. The attraction for most is a place in which celebrity and wealth are one and the same. Life will always be wonderful inside a club whose membership turns fantasy to reality and shapes the hearts and minds of the world.  

We are the only game in town for, quite literally, turning stories into money. It has always been an intoxicating lure. 


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Last year’s Festival du Film in Cannes was a sober reminder that, in the aftermath of the Covid tempest, we are not the same people we were before that storm. Now, on the other side of the Hollywood strikes by writers and actors alike, we film-makers are more fragile than ever.

Against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, those of us who attended the Festival this year could easily feel a new, stranger wind building. The sensation was reflected in the eyes of nearly every film-maker I spoke with. It wasn’t memory, it was recognition. It’s too easy to recall how hard it had been to tread water in this business before Covid and the Strikes. In their immediate aftermath, the calm waters off the beach in Cannes should have been some comfort. 

And yet, on the street, the waters are getting choppy. 

We each know that film-makers stand alone in a highly social industry. We are each a captain of our own ship. Investors in film, too, are masters of their own vessel. Traditionally, at best, we are ships that pass in the night. We hope for collision. Around us all are the great sharks who benefit most from our mutual desolation. Those studio bosses and distribution execs pick the flesh off the bones of our deals and leave us, film-maker and investor alike, starving.

But, purposefully mixing metaphors, unlike the dog-eat-dog tradition of the past, in the storm that’s coming, I believe, we will either float together or drown alone. 

Cannes 

Cannes is the biggest film festival in the world. 

Created as the antithesis to the left-wing Venice film festival 77 years ago. It has long been the playground for the rich and the infamous seeking merger with the celebrity and glamour of Hollywood. There are two faces of Cannes, of course. The Festival and the Marché are the Ego and the Id of the industry. The brightest façade, however, does little to change the nature of the bordello behind it. 

As in any industry, money matters in the film business. Everyone needs it. Not everyone has it. 

Nothing epitomises this more than the red carpet and the promise it exudes. It attracts those who need money and those who want to invest money into a carnival atmosphere designed to separate both from their sense of worth. The distribution and acquisition execs circle between us with flowery promises as we face off and hope for a deal. It is, quite simply, addictive. Is it any wonder that those who attend are filled with its heady perfume.

For “the Money”, it is not unlike the many timeshare events in the Canary Islands of yore. A time when the high-net-worths (and the not so much) left their brains on the planes as the glitz rubbed off on immaculate dinner suits and Gucci loafers. In bye-gone years, discussion on millions of dollars for movie projects could turn into investments within seconds. Once upon a time, that hope drove our industry far beyond the fairytales we produce. It’s possible that producers just might skin their mark, ride off into the sunset in Uber helicopters to the Cap Ferrat and spend their spoils with no backward glance (or remorse). 

This is what Cannes has meant for so many for so long.

But no longer, I hope.

Hereby lies, or should I say underlies, our inherent, or should I say inherited, problem. Hope is not a strategy. 

Strategically, “other people’s money” matters as much to “them” as it does to “us”. But so long as “us” and “them” treat each other as predator and prey, the only ones getting fat are the sharks that circle between us.


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It’s hard to resist the alure of our industry. I know. Purchase with your eyes by all means – the human is programmed to like what it sees before it kills/loves/buys! The ancient warning is not one-sided: “buyer beware”. For in this atmosphere of literal hedonism an old Hollywood adage/joke holds true: 

Question: How does one become a millionaire in Hollywood? 

Answer: Arrive as a Billionaire!

The other edge of that sword is that there is no “us” without “them”.

If we don’t align the interests of “the Business” with that of “the Money”, only the great, fat sharks will remain.

As film-makers, we have all of the tools necessary to convert our profession from pirates of the Mediterranean and into the merchant vessels we think ourselves to be.  

In this world of smoke and mirrors and story-tellers, buyers learn. And so should we. 

Investors need more than a compass to navigate these potentially choppy, if not stormy seas. They need partners. And so do we. At the end of the day, both film-makers and investors need to put the principles of business before our rose-tinted Chanel sunglasses to see the true picture. 

If we can do that, we might just weather this coming storm.

Only once the sharks realise that we “easy marks” are working together can we stop being ships that pass in the night. Only then can we begin to build a flotilla that manages to keep its treasures on board. 

Only then can we, as film-makers and investors, watch our ships come in.

It’s a great story, waiting to be told.

5 Comments

  1. Dear Kirsty. We saw the same things in the eyes of the indie crowd in Cannes this year. I would call it fear.

    The buyers really weren’t there to buy (those who were there). I think the few deals I heard about had been agreed prior. This not a reflection on either the quality or quantity of the content being pitched. I also think the audiences are even hungrier for new stories than ever before.

    The Buyers are simply not buying. If they were once sharks (I like your analogy), they are now vultures; waiting for creatives to drop before swooping in and taking. I don’t think the industry can survive this for long. Something’s gotta give.

  2. Point of fact: the Cannes Film Festival was founded in 1939 as the antithesis of the overtly fascist (i.e. rather than left-wing) Venice Film Festival , which had become dominated by Mussolini and his party.

    • You may be technically correct, Gavin. But …

      Not to “girl’splain” to you, Gavin, but history isn’t that simple. The Cannes “Festival International du Film” had a rather inconsistent beginning. While its inaugural event in 1939 may have been born from Mussolini and Hitler turning the Venice International Film Festival into a fascist love fest, particularly in 1938, World War II interfered in the creation of a consistent, annual rival to Venice.

      Kirsty Bell’s reference to 77 years ago may to the 1947 iteration after its relaunch in 1946. At that time, Venice as decidedly left-leaning (for obvious reasons). The spring-time event we all know today, complete with a fully-roofed Palais des Festivals on la Croissette, didn’t happen until 1951.

      By then, the Venice International Film Festival was decidedly “left wing”.

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