The coverage of this year’s Cannes Film Festival has me thinking about the festival in my sleep; I'm plotting, scheming and dreaming of going next year (but don't I say that every year?) Eugene Hernandez, a true champion of independent and international cinema, recently wrote a resonant defense of Cannes in indieWIRE that deserves more attention. Eugene writes:
“What I’ve always loved about this fest is that people take cinema so seriously here. Movies ignite debates and stir arguments. Where else but in Cannes would moviegoers booing a film by a Danish art film director stir international media attention. Granted, Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but the immediate attention drawn by the contentious debut over the new Lars Von Trier film reiterated to me why Cannes matters. It matters because cinema still matters.“
Eugene was courteously rebuffed by David Poland, who wrote on The Hot Blog:
“It is a very specific, very limited view. One or two films at the fest will have an impact beyond the cineaste community in this country. And more often than not, those films go to Cannes with a distributor or with the bidding war set up ahead of time…I don't want Cannes to go away. Bless it, it serves its purpose brilliantly. But does it matter?”
I don’t think it should come as any surprise that I fervently agree with Eugene’s point of view on this issue; Cannes matters to me, so much so that I spend a portion of every day reading about the films, tracking the sales and watching snippets of press conference footage. Each year, Cannes is like a holiday for people like me, a slow-building fortnight of media hype and analysis featuring blow-by-blow details of the business of film coupled with the critical judgment passed upon filmmakers whose work sets the agenda for international art house cinema.
What is most interesting to me is that at this most-business oriented of film festivals, a place where the film market dominates the landscape (if not the headlines), Cannes maintains the highest level of artistic credibility by rejecting commercial concerns in its competition, which remains the heart and soul of the event. So while the city of Cannes is slathered in posters, billboards and standees announcing all sorts of cinematic dross from around the world, the festival does a brilliant job of training all eyes (and camera lenses) on the red carpet that ascends the steps of the Palais. If ever there were a perfect example of the literalism of “cinematic royalty”, the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, where every screening feels like a coronation, is it.
It is the aristocratic seriousness with which Cannes treats the art of film that makes the festival work; I half-expect to read a story about some king dozing off in the third act and ruining the commercial chances of one film or another. You laugh at the concept of Cannes, you feel excluded by its seemingly arbitrary hierarchies and arcane rules as you stand on the outside looking in, but like any great piece of showmanship, more than anything, you want to run away and join this particular circus. Unfortunately, for folks like me, passion only gets you so far; there are only so many seats in the Palais and only so many people who can afford to travel halfway around the world, donning the black ties and designer gowns required to occupy them.
Good Luck Getting In: The Palais Des Festivals In Cannes (Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage)
It is this anti-democratic strain in the festival that also proves David Poland’s argument to be important. Not specifically because he nails the underlying problem, which is not about the critical reaction to the films that play, but because he correctly identifies that there is a problem with the business for these films in America (and around the world). As I see it, the problem is not the movies themselves or audiences raised on Hollywood pap; in this country, auteur cinema suffers because the business of foreign film, the way in which the world sells these movies to American audiences, too often rejects the democratic, populist need in the American personality in favor of replicating the aristocratic tenor of business at the Palais.
As one of my colleagues correctly identified in a recent conversation, it is the dirty little secret of the international film sales business that the United States is a marginal business at best, a loss leader and waste of precious time at worst. The fate of foreign film in America, in other words, is left in hands of companies who really don’t understand the country outside of four or five metropolitan areas and who don’t have the time or resources to devote to the limited benefits of building a grassroots campaign in America for an undistributed film. It is almost forgivable, but ends up being frustrating; since these folks do not want to create a landscape where they end up competing against the models and strategies of their film-buying clients, if your film doesn’t have a sale, it doesn’t play outside of two or three major festivals in America. Period.
This is an issue for co-productions and national cinema funds; they are run with the same strategic precision that American studios use to keep films out of the hands of audiences until the seller is good and ready. The difference? While audiences can’t wait to see a film like Star Trek, very few people are beating down the door for the latest from European and Asian auteurs. This is how the “good and ready” becomes “never.” And filmmakers are generally powerless in this process; when did you last hear of an international director forsaking a crummy distribution deal in favor of self-distribution in the USA? It is unheard of.
That said, the business of distributing these films in the USA has, despite my early reservations and deep concerns, entered a new era, one where their availability has transcended any previous time in movie history. I am a complete convert to IFC and Magnolia’s day-and-date VOD model, not only because it provides unprecedented access to these films, but also because it isn’t so popular that it has replaced the theatrical experience. And as far challenging, art-house fare goes, is there anyone better than Sony Classics at the patient theatrical rollout?
Looking at the Cannes competition, IFC grabbed von Trier’s Antichrist (with the promise not to cut the film) and Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, Sony acquired Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon-- these films are not the next box office sensations (or maybe they will be, but expectations are realistic, I assume). Instead, we are fortunate to have a few, rare companies left who care about these films and are working to find a way to get them seen by as many people as possible. The model works, as far as I can tell, because it has democratized the movies, responding to audience demand for convenience and choice; these companies have learned to stop treating these films like rarified, precious objects and to get them in front of people, to try anything possible to build demand.
Which is the heart of the problem; there is a tremendous supply of foreign product and very little demand among domestic audiences. If I were a foreign sales company, the first step I would take would be to do whatever is necessary to get audiences to give a damn, to build demand and diverse outlets for my product. While it could be argued that this job falls squarely on domestic distributors, it is clearly the case that they are only part of the solution. Why do film festival screenings around the country sell out? Because audiences are still hungry for the thrill of the event, the special feeling of being first, of being part of something happening.
Cinema has lost its status as an event; the movie theater rarely feels like a special place these days. In Cannes, it is wonderful to be a part of the spectacle, to see seriousness celebrated and venerated, but black-tie formality doesn’t help the day-to-day struggle in the USA to build audiences. Serious films need, rather, to take themselves less seriously, to deign to market themselves. I am certainly not opposed to cinematic seriousness, but I also believe that America will only embrace seriousness when it is made accessible. I don't mean dumbing things down, I mean making seriousness more democratic, more open. There have always been tough films; why do they thrive in some times and not others?
It is incredibly shortsighted to abandon the grassroots networks available in America, but foreign film in this country has a real PR problem; we have built the business to resemble the Palais, a long, inaccessible red carpet for the few. Only in the US, there are no flashbulbs and no throngs beating down the doors to get in. This must seem troubling after the triumphalism of most international film festivals; perhaps they expect audience demand as a birthright? But if Hollywood is kicking your ass, why not take your show on the road and get down and dirty with the people?
While there are changes afoot, the most important one of all is the change of mindset toward the US market, an understanding that we are a nation of immigrants looking for roots, for a way to discover the world. Foreign film needs to be sold to the public as a part of our culture, of who we are as a nation among nations. There are those who still think that the art of selling ends at the bottom of a distribution contract, but without a quick and whole-hearted acceptance of the democratic impulse of American moviegoers, demand will remain flat. Any meaningful embrace is mutual. These films can find an audience. But can the business?