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On Trying to Work in the Name of a Festival Sponsor (Without Compromising One's Journalistic Integrity)

Thompson on Hollywood By Lisa Nesselson | Thompson on Hollywood June 3, 2013 at 3:52PM

Since I was a teenager, I've wondered why Coke and Pepsi still have to advertise. Is there anyone who knows what a carbonated beverage is who isn't already aware of these two iconic brands of cola? How hard is it to taste both and decide if a personal preference emerges or that either (or neither) one will do?
James Franco
Photo by BPHR James Franco

But we weren't speaking about wine.  We were speaking about how the English-language trades have cut back on the number of films they review and how nowadays talented but as-yet-unknown people may not get written up for lack of space and/or budget. I mentioned that when I used to write for an American trade that rhymes with "sobriety" I had reviewed a 1997 French first film co-starring the then-unknown Guillaume Canet in his first big-screen role. Although that movie sold the box office equivalent of a handful of tickets in all of France, I pegged Canet as a talent to watch and the publication trusted my judgement.

Sixteen years later, unless that film were part of the line-up at a prominent festival, it probably wouldn't get written about at all.

When I've had occasion to give that example, nobody has ever known what film I'm taking about. But Mr. De la Noue immediately said, "I saw that film! At a preview. It was horrifically violent. And you're right -- it may have lasted all of a week in theaters. What was it called? Something with 'moon' in the title?"

There we were, the publicist for the Mouton Cadet Wine Bar, Mr. de la Noue, my husband and I, pleasantly wracking our brains as the breeze fluttered over the gorgeous blue water and the temporary tents gleamed like so many giant white Hershey's Kisses (that image is not a plug; it stems from personal taste -- I've always loved Hershey's Kisses and unless they start clubbing baby seals to make them, I always will).

The four of us devoted several game-show-style minutes to trying to come up with the title of that very early film with Canet. I remembered that the director had gone on to make "Like a Fish Out of Water" because it was on the set of that film that I learned from a Turkish actor that my last name spoken aloud sounds like the Turkish for "How are you?" -- which might have come as a surprise to my Russian ancestors.

This wracking of brains is, you'll recall, how people who care about film spent a LOT of their time before the Internet made all sorts of information -- much of it accurate -- so easily available.  Finally, the publicist got up and went into the covered portion of the facility.  A few minutes later, a different perfectly groomed woman ran out and exclaimed, "Barracuda!"

Yes, yes, of course! It WAS called "Barracuda!"

We went on talking about cinema for a while. In fact, the only wine-o-centric portion of the conversation revealed that the bottles lined up behind the bar by hue were props that only looked as if they contained wine. I learned that moonlight is even more deadly to wine than sunlight.

Product placement can be kind of creepy but sponsorship can be kind of admirable. (It's my understanding that a healthy chunk of public money goes into mounting the Cannes Film Festival but that sponsors are what make such an enormous undertaking possible.)

Last September, I was part of a small delegation of FIPRESCI-affiliated film critics at the relatively young PRIfest in Prishtina, Kosovo. We were there to conduct a workshop for budding film critics from the Balkans. There's only one commercial cinema in Prishtina and nearly all of the workshop participants freely admitted that they see films via illegal downloads or bootleg DVDs. They were a sharp bunch with extensive film knowledge and lively opinions.

The rather tasty fizzy mineral water S. Pellegrino (also affiliated with Cannes) was a PRIfest sponsor and so, before each screening, we watched a promotional short showing bottles of Italian H2O in a flattering light. So far, so good. But the entire wordless extravaganza was set to an English-language song in which a woman sings: "I try to walk away and I choke...."

Call me literal-minded or a stickler for content as well as form, but I find it unwise for a company purveying something one SWALLOWS to use a song in which the word "choke" appears with frightening regularity.  Does listening over and over to a song whose first-person lyrics lament the singer's inability to leave her lover somehow reinforce allegience to S. Pellegrino?  Advertising (or captive repeat exposure) DOES work -- now every time I order a bottle of S. Pellegrino I think of the song with "choke" in the lyrics.

And to make up for my lack of creativity in subtly promoting the Rothschild family's fruit of the vine, yesterday, in the liquor section of my local Paris supermarket, I purchased a bottle of Mouton Cadet red.

This article is related to: Cannes Film Festival, Features

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.