Cannes Struggles for Relevance in Shrinking Movie Business

Cannes 2019: While the U.S. was riveted by the last episode of “Game of Thrones” on Sunday, Cannes fiddled to the tune of Terrence Malick’s three-hour opus “A Hidden Life”

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Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

There’s a fair amount of existential angst at the Cannes Film Festival this year, as those from the movie industry who are here to do business ask themselves what remains of the business to do. It isn’t a particularly new fact that the Cannes Film Festival occupies an uncomfortable niche in the movie business. The festival brings films from all over the world, often from many of the same directors — this year includes festival regulars from Pedro Almodóvar to Claude Lelouch to Asif Kapadia to the Dardenne brothers — but hardly any of them will get wide distribution around the world, and certainly not at all in the United States. Movies have become the stuff of superheroes, the world of entertainment has moved to TV content and the people with big money are here for the parties, not to do business. So while America was riveted by the last episode of “Game of Thrones” on Sunday, Cannes fiddled to the tune of Terrence Malick’s three-hour opus “A Hidden Life.” If the critics (including TheWrap’s Steve Pond) embraced the film, there was grumbling from distributors. “People hated the Malick,” one veteran executive said, threatening death if he were identified. “The festival itself is always weird and esoteric.” (Fox Searchlight bought the Malick in an eight-figure deal, beating out competition from Paramount, Netflix and other U.S. distributors who apparently disagreed.) Still, Malick’s films barely earn at the box office. And the major business deals of the past have trickled down to mid-level sales and packages. Agents scurry to meetings to secure foreign pre-sales and sure, there’s a new indie distributor here and there announced with great fanfare. But even in past years, the open secret of Cannes is that the movies that get announced here rarely seem to end up on screen. “I think it’s passé. It’s irrelevant,” one industry executive said, sitting in the bar of the new industry watering hole at the Grand Hotel — because it was too rainy for the terrace at the Carlton, whose lobby was full of oligarchs and what appeared to be women for hire. “Companies rise, companies fall — nobody outside the (industry) beltway gets it.” I pointed out that despite that he and others still feel obliged to be present. The executive sighed. “I can see all these people in Los Angeles.” Gone are the indie players who used to make a splash here — Harvey Weinstein and Ryan Kavanaugh once cut major profiles in Cannes. Weinstein is now facing prosecution and Kavanaugh has moved on to Asian adventures. Lots of other indie distributors have shut their doors. And while it wasn’t that long ago that Weinstein took “The Artist” from Cannes all the way to Best Picture at the Oscars, the conventional wisdom is that foreign films don’t play in America, a self-fulfilling reality since no one tries hard to distribute them. Notable in Cannes this year — apart from the persistent rain — are all the hangers-on from around the world. A producer with a film in competition said he turned down a couple of offers for foreign high-net-worth individuals to sponsor post-screening parties. After a jolt of fun from Elton John, the arrival of Quentin Tarantino and his cast for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” on Tuesday might chase the storm clouds of irrelevance away, if just for a day.