I really want to do a “red carpet looks” post, but I’m not the best place for it. Especially in a “hot off the presses” kind of way. I don’t have a subscription to a photo service, so I am just stealing images from other sites in a very haphazard way, which means it’s best if I wait until things have settled down a bit before I try it. But I can at least give a starting point for what Cannes is, behind the glitz and glamour. Be warned, this is a very cynical and practical post, so it may not be much fun.
Cannes Film Festival is the biggest film Trade Show in the world. It’s just like a trade show for any other industry, except this time instead of the product being refrigerators, it is films. There’s a lot of glitz and glamour to it, but it is really about presenting your product to potential buyers and hoping they take it.
There are essentially two kinds of film festivals, the ones that serve the audience and the ones that serve the industry. The first are events within themselves. Special showings of special movies, the only goal is for a new audience to see and appreciate these films. I saw my first Indian film on the big screen at one of those festivals. I grew up in a midsized city in the middle of nowhere. Certain distributors who paid large amounts for large mainstream movies had contracts with our large local theaters. We got everything big, but nothing small. Except for once a year when a committee of volunteers would contract with a smaller distributor that had the rights for odd smaller films, rent out space in a local movie theater, and show these odd movies. The goal was to bring something a little new and different to our town, and to serve the people who liked new and different movies and appreciated seeing whatever was on offer. These films might have released months or even years earlier in other cities that had dedicated theaters with contracts with those smaller distributors. But they were new to us. There are a lot of film festivals like this. The ones that say “we are picking the best of the best of films for you, buy a ticket and see something special”. They are serving the audience, not the film makers or film industry.
There are other film festivals that are like this, a committee picks the best of the best and provides them to the audience, but have a slightly greater advantage for the filmmakers. These festivals open up entries to anyone who has a film ready to be shown. They are the places where you might see a movie that has played in multiple festivals already and had a limited release (so the rights have expired or are in limbo), or a film that has never been shown anywhere before. A new audience will see the movie, critics will review it, the filmmaker can put those reviews on their CV and on their promotional materials and use them to try to sell the film to a distributor or to another festival. You’ll see these films sometimes, they release months or years after they are completed and have a long list of film festivals where they played already, before they hit the regular theaters.
These film festivals have a noble mission, of recognizing films that might otherwise go unnoticed, and of bringing them to an audience that would not otherwise be able to see them. All festivals pretend that this is their mission, that there is “honor” in merely being included, that they are serving a discriminating audience with high tastes. But that is not really the case. Completely different from the festivals I described above whose main goal is to serve the audience and bring good films to light, are the festivals like Cannes, Sundance, TIFF, SXSW, Berlin, and so on. Those festivals are, ultimately, about money and business.
There are big and small festivals of this type. Sundance is the first of the smaller kind and was designed specifically to be small. If your film is accepted at Sundance, it will get attention. Nothing gets lost in the shuffle there. If you make a movie with grants and loans and your own money (no studio backing and guaranteed distribution chain), then it is very hard to get the right distributors to see it and take it. Sundance fills that gap. If your film is accepted there, it practically guarantees some kind of distribution deal. That may be anything from a release in mainstream theaters, to straight to streaming, but it will be SOMETHING. Sundance wasn’t worried about the kind of big movies that play at Cannes, it wanted to make sure the smaller stranger films got noticed. There are more and more festivals of this type now. They straddle the gap between the purely “it’s an honor just to be accepted” kind of festivals and the massive ones that are all about the trade shows.
The biggest festivals, they are (essentially) trade shows. All over the world there are companies that make their living by providing movies, products, to theaters. Or they represent massive theater chains directly and are looking for something to fill their theaters. Or, now, they represent DVD companies, or streaming companies. The purpose of the film festival like this is not to recognize film as art through awards, or bring great art to audiences, it is to make MONEY.
This is how Cannes works. The part that is promoted is the very prestigious jury of top notch artists selecting films to play in a few fancy categories. That works like the kind of film festival I mention above. It is a great honor for the film, and the filmmaker, and can lead to greater honors and attention in future. It’s cyclical, it is a great honor for a film to play in this category at Cannes, and because so many great films were in that category in Cannes, Cannes continues to have a lot of prestige and the best films continue to be submitted there.
But that isn’t the real business of what is happening. The real business is everything else that goes on. The Cannes Film Festival had a rough start around WWII, had it’s fair share of problems (the roof flew off the building once), and lack of government support. And then in 1959 the Marche Du Film was established, the hidden other side of the festival. Over 5,000 films are part of this half. And each of those films is up for sale. And it’s this half that supports the other half, that pours in the money to keep it going.
The pretty front side of Cannes is what makes it “fun”, what gets it the attention. The media is there to take photos of the gowns, to interview the big name stars promoting their big name movies. And if you are a distributor with money to spend, going to Cannes and seeing the pretty ladies and famous people makes spending money a little more fun.
This is how Cannes really works, it’s all a show. The fake narrative at the center is the Jury selection and the competition for the Palmes D’Or. That gives everyone something to hold on to and keep watching. The window dressing, like the item numbers in a movie, are all the pretty ladies on the red carpet in their fancy dresses. You’ve got the b-plot too, the other smaller Jury selected categories that critics from all over the world will attend and send reports back to those who care about film in their own countries, or that wealthy film fans will attend to see the best most interesting movies before everyone else. But the real audience, the ones who are “buying the ticket” for this narrative and spectacle, are all the money men from all over the world who are choosing to shop at Cannes instead of other festivals or outlets because of the narratives and the pretty ladies. And the people funding it and making the profit, they are the producers, the ones with the big mainstream films that are promoted by the big stars on the red carpet (not necessarily films playing at the festival, any time you can get your star in front of cameras is a win), and also the other producers, the ones with the tiny cheap monster movies and soft porn that get a little booth and try to sell their products in the Marche Du Film.
I said the narrative and the pretty ladies get people in the door, but really it is more the Pretty Ladies than anything. It’s an open secret that businessman come to Cannes because they can sleep with starlets. The French government set up a dedicated hotline in 2018 to report sex assaults at Cannes. That’s how common it is. If you see a report of a B-level actress at Cannes and think “that’s interesting, why is she there?” there is a good chance she is there for some kind of sex work. Not necessarily prostitution, but paid escort to a party to make someone look good, or paid party guest to fill the room with pretty faces, anything that will get men in the mood to spend money. That’s probably why Mallika Sherawat is such a festival regular.
The more artistic side of the film industry puts up with this, because Cannes is good for them. It gets loads of coverage for lessor known films, and helps support a myth of film as a beautiful artistic endeavor. And the more practical side of the film industry puts up with this because film isn’t just a beautiful artistic endeavor, it is business. And business needs money, and sometimes money wants sex.
Now, how does India fit in? India has had quite a few films over the years play in the official Jury selections. That helps it to arrive as an artistically respected film industry. India has an increasing number of pretty ladies draped on the red carpet, which helps those women gain more international attention. And India has at least one (Mallika Sherawat) of those sad not-red-carpet-worthy women who work the festival, probably more.
I’m not really thrilled with any of these results. In the Jury selections, the most remarkable mainstream hits of Indian film haven’t been selected, it tends to be more the kind of Indian film that people want to think is Indian film, either something incredibly lavish and fantastical like Devdas, or something without any songs or other genre markings like Salaam Bombay. It doesn’t really help promote Hindi film to the world, let alone the full array that makes up Indian film, instead it helps the world to continue to limit Indian film only to a few aspects. And the Indian films that play in the lessor categories get almost no attention, I have trolled the Western press for early reviews of those films and usually come up blank.
The women on the red carpet, if I have to think about it, I can’t really think of any good result? It’s Orientalism for one thing, removing the threatening Asian man and only leaving the non-threatening woman. It also encourages these women to be treated as only objects, they aren’t there because they actually have films to promote, they are part of the parade of pretty ladies just there to be pretty. The bright spot is when their fashion is completely on point. Because fashion is a skill and a talent like anything else, when Sonam or Deepika nails it on the Cannes red carpet, they are bringing honor back to India in their own small way.
But the over excitement that I sometimes see in the Indian media over their appearances kind of kills any of that honor. Sonam and Deepika are there because they are pretty and wear gowns well. Being excited over such a small thing kind of just makes the Indian press look desperate for outside validation.
Where the Indian films are missing is in the actual selling places in Cannes. TIFF in Toronto and the Berlin festival, that is where mainstream Indian films do much better. They appear with big promotions around them, and attract big bucks from the distributors. Indian films regularly open in Germany now and the rest of Europe, that’s from attracting distributors at Berlin not at Cannes. And the growth of the North American market, that’s probably partly due to TIFF.
I’m not even sure if the Indian films SHOULD be pushing harder at Cannes? Where they have done well at TIFF and Berlinale is taking a movie that was already going to be a big deal and packaging it up prettily to attract even more attention and convince distributors for an even bigger release. My Name is Khan is the most notable example of this tactic, breaking international box office records after opening in Berlin, complete with star Shahrukh and director Karan Johar. If they can make those deals in Germany, where there is less competition for the big international names and Indian/Hindi films are more respected, should they even be bothering with Cannes?
Your big take away from this post should be less “Margaret Doesn’t Care About Cannes” and more about film festivals in general. They are not all equal and they are not all the same. And they are certainly not about an objective measurement of film quality, at least not the really big ones, they are about what will sell to the kind of businessmen they want to attract. There is a kind of film that will do well at Cannes, and a kind that will do well at Sundance, and so on and so forth. And I think, so far at least, the Indian films have done far better at TIFF and Berlinale, the festivals with less glitz and glamour and more of a hard financial focus, than at Cannes.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got! A lot less “pretty dresses!” and “prestigious awards!” And a lot more “prostitution, money, contracts”. Sorry! I know it’s not fun!