Cannes 2020: Why Cancellation Looks More Likely Than a Virtual Festival

For the moment, the celebrated French festival is stalling for time as it tries to figure out a road forward in the age of COVID-19

The Cannes Film Festival cannot take place in 2020. In the age of the coronavirus, that would be too dangerous.

The Cannes Film Festival must take place in 2020. It means too much to the world of international cinema to cancel.

Those are the two absolutes that Cannes organizers are now stuck between. On the day it would normally have announced the lineup for this year’s festival — a day in which Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” and Pete Docter’s “Soul” would almost certainly have been bound for the Croisette — the festival instead put out a statement reiterating what it said four days ago:

“It is clearly difficult to assume that the Festival de Cannes could be held this year in its original form. Nevertheless … the Festival de Cannes, an essential pillar for the film industry, must explore all contingencies allowing to support the year of Cinema by making Cannes 2020 real, in a way or another.”

And in an interview with Le Figaro that was reprinted on the Cannes website, General Delegate Thierry Fremaux admitted that lots of options were on the table, including “a masked red carpet,” and concluded this way: “Let’s wait until life starts up again and the films shout from the rooftops that they are still a force to be reckoned with: far from the dark predictions that are posted here and there about the death of cinema.”

In one way, festival organizers are obviously stalling for time. The initial idea of rescheduling the festival for late June or early July is no longer an option after French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Monday that festivals could not take place in France “before mid-July at the earliest.” But Fremaux and his staff are continuing to view films that have been submitted, and will do so until the end of June, even though at the moment there are no real plans for how those films could be shown in public.

One thing is clear, though: The festival has no plans to go virtual. It will not go the route of SXSW, which was canceled a week before its mid-March launch but is preparing to have a selection of its films made available on Amazon Prime; or the Tribeca Film Festival, which would have kicked off on Wednesday, and which has now launched a portal on which press and industry viewers can watch a selection of the films scheduled to screen in New York; or even Cannes’ own Marche du Film, the  market that announced it will hold a digital version of its sales program for film professionals over the course of four days in late June.

But a digital Cannes Film Festival? “No,” Fremaux said flatly. “Cannes is a festival, a gathering, a collective judgement, an influence. Screenings, cheers, whistles and the rest.”

Cannes is also tied closely to the French film exhibition industry, many of whose members sit on its board. That’s why Netflix is barred from competition, and why any alternative that doesn’t showcase film as something you see in a public theater would be an extraordinarily hard sell. “Cannes stands up for films screened in theaters,” Fremaux said. “And the theaters are now at their worst point. We must help them and that will take time.”

But how much time does Cannes have? Once the calendar gets to late August, there could be competition with other major festivals hoping to unspool at (or close to) their usual time: Venice at the end of August, Telluride and then Toronto in early September, New York in late September and early October, the AFI Fest now in October.

(Memo to AFI: You picked the wrong year to move up from your usual November slot. Admit that now and might increase your chance of actually taking place.)

Those festivals may or may not happen — but if the state of the virus is such that Cannes can be held in the fall, it’s likely that the other festivals will be, too. Dropping the most prestigious international festival in the middle of the other fall festivals could have devastating ripple effects — and even keeping open the possibility of that move could wreak havoc with other festivals’ planning.

So why are Cannes organizers still stalling? Because Cannes is Cannes, the symbol of international cinema. It has always relished its status and it is even prouder now, a year after launching “Parasite,” the first Cannes Palme d’Or winner to go on to win the Best Picture Oscar in 64 years.

In addition to being a big moneymaker for the town, the festival is of symbolic importance for the international film industry — and that may be why Fremaux seems to be considering an option that could retain the festival’s status as the imprimatur of quality cinema without ever showing its films in a theater or in digital form.

Because the festival’s programmers have been viewing films for months, and obviously making some decisions about which ones would be included if the festival took place, Fremaux admitted they may consider a “Cannes 2020” label that could identify films that would have been in the festival if the festival had taken place.

“This label would allow us to promote the films we’ve seen and to keep track of them in the complex situation of their autumn release,” he said. “We are sent wonderful films from everywhere and it is our duty — and our wish — to help them to exist and to find an audience … We don’t want to abandon the films and those who made them possible. We want to be present in the autumn in order to play our part in the huge construction effort of rebuilding cinema.”

In that case, Cannes wouldn’t exist as a physical festival or a virtual festival at all, but as a label of what might have been — a stamp of quality from an entity that still wants a voice in the conversation.

Or maybe Fremaux & Co. will hold out, find a spot in the calendar and hold a scaled-down festival (with or without that masked red carpet). We don’t know. They don’t know. And even if some form of cancellation seems all but inevitable, they’re not ready to go there yet. Because they’re Cannes.

“This profession, like others, is facing the risk of becoming a wasteland,” Fremaux said. “We must all demonstrate our energy and our unity. The Festival de Cannes wants to play its part in that.”

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • [email protected] • Twitter: @stevepond


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