Guillermo del Toro Leads Cannes Symposium on Film’s Future: ‘What We Have Now Is Unsustainable’

Cannes 2022: The Mexican director leads a wide-ranging conversation with Paolo Sorrentino, Costa-Gavras and other noted filmmakers

Guillermo del Toro
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Director Guillermo del Toro showed up at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday to lead a wide-ranging conversation with directors including Paolo Sorrentino, Claude Lelouch, Costa-Gavras, Michel Hazanavicius and Gaspar Noe, and he sounded the alarm from his opening comments that the film business was dramatically changing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of streaming services over movie theaters.

“What we have right now is unsustainable,” del Toro said at the beginning of the “Filmmaking: What Now?” symposium, a two-day event to mark the 75th Cannes. “In so many ways, what we have belongs to an older structure. Whether we want it to or not, the future will show up.”

But, he added, the change in the movie business is only part of a wider change across society. “When we look at the entire structure of how we are as a race, a community, it is shifting,” he said. “It took one pandemic to shake it all up. And we survived the pandemic because we had three things: food, medicine and stories.”

The Mexican director didn’t dismiss streaming services like Netflix or the move of many directors to long-form projects for TV, but he made a point about the difference in media. “Are there great works on TV? Yeah. But do they have the scale of movies? Not very often. TV can generate great drama, and sometimes it generates great storytelling, but rarely does it generate great images on a big scale the way movies do.

“I was born in 1964, and I saw ‘Vertigo’ on video many times. But the moment I saw it on the big screen, I realized that I had never seen it.”

And there’s another part of the streaming culture that he can’t tolerate. “There are two things that entered our lexicon five years ago that are horrible,” he said. “Content and pipeline. They describe oil, water or sewage – they don’t describe cinema. They describe something that you flush through, that has to keep moving.”

Still, he said he was on hand to ask questions, not to expect answers. “I think there are many answers to what the future is,” he said. “And the future doesn’t belong to us – it belongs to itself. So I’m not afraid of anything, I’m at peace with the form changing. But I think we have to question ourselves: Are we arguing about the size of the screens or the size of the ideas?”

Cannes General Delegate Thierry Fremaux led the two-and-a-half-hour conversation in Cannes Palais, except during a brief stretch when he ducked out to introduce the premiere of the Dardenne brothers’ “Tori and Lokita.” Fremaux said the first such symposium was held at Cannes about 45 years ago and led by Italian director Roberto Rossellini – who, del Toro pointed out with a laugh, died about a month after that year’s festival.

While del Toro made the most dramatic statements about the upheaval in current cinema, the other directors who came up and sat beside him one at a time had a variety of viewpoints, most of them more measured. French legend Lelouch (“A Man and a Woman”), 84, said, “I believe that movie theaters will win and young people will return to (them), even though they’re going through a terrible time right now. We will quickly get tired of seeing films on a platform. I’m fed up with it. On a TV screen, you see closeups, which is the dictatorship of the filmmaker. On screens you see a wide image, which is democracy.”

Another legendary European filmmaker, Costa-Gavras (“Z”), who is five years older than Lelouch, said that he thinks cinema is reaching the end of an era, and was heading in that direction prior to the pandemic. “I think everything will be different and everything will have changed compared to before COVID,” he said. “Viewers have changed, and new generations see things differently. The cinema will continue to listen and to tell stories, and it’s up to directors to find new ways of speaking about the new cinema.”

For Argentinian provocateur Noe (“Enter the Void,” “Vortex”), the COVID years have been an education in film – literally, because he had medical problems and was confined to his home, where he set a goal of watching two classic films each day. “I spent four months watching all the film classics I’d missed out on all my life. It was like going to school, because the only thing that has really touched me in my life is the cinema.”

When Noe mentioned those viewing sessions, del Toro quickly pointed out that they did some of them together, watching the same movies each day and then talking about them afterwards. That led into a discussion of the death of physical media like DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, and the way Noe and del Toro would be forced to turn to unauthorized streaming services that have become the only place to see many films. (This part of the conversation made Fremaux visibly uncomfortable.)

Sorrentino, who was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for the Netflix-distributed film “The Hand of God,” was the panelist with the most experience in the TV/streaming world. (He also produced and directed the HBO series “The New Pope.”) “I have done movies for the cinema, for the platform and I have done a TV show, but at the end of the day the best thing for me is to do movies for the movie screen, because the power of the image makes a difference,” he said. “And that is something I am only able to find on the big screen.”

French actor-turned-director Mathieu Kassovitz turned his time on the panel into a tribute to del Toro and a criticism of the way CGI has made anything possible on a movie screen. “My last movie was 10 years ago, and I got disgusted,” said Kassovitz, who went back to acting. “I got disgusted by CGI. Today, even if I see a movie made by hand, I don’t know if it’s real or not because of CGI. My emotion is not the same.”

Hazanavicius, an Oscar winner for “The Artist” and the director of this year’s opening-night film in Cannes, “Final Cut,” said, “The cinema is not an extinct species, but it’s changing. And the trouble lies with audiences. I think we have lots of very good films, and in France we’re in a situation where we can finance those films, but there’s a problem getting people back into movie theaters, for all sorts of different reasons.

“We need to teach people about the cinema, to teach film literacy,” he added. “I have children who learned to play the recorder in school, but they never learned about cinema.”

Two panelist, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca and Israeli-born Nadav Lapid, steered the conversation to the filmmaker’s job, regardless of the state of the industry. Mendonca, who won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 for “Bacurau,” admitted that “theatrical release builds character” but said, “Technique has changed – you can make films with an iOhone or in 70mm or on a high quality digital camera, but to me those are just details. What you have to deal with is how to bring people together to make a film, and how to respect them and develop ideas.”

And Lapid, whose last film, “Ahed’s Knee,” was at Cannes last year, added, “We all run to save the cinema, but what are we saving? Are we trying to save something that really talks about existence? I don’t think we’re sufficiently asking ourselves these questions or are really using all the ways we have at our disposal to ask ourselves about these truths.”

The final panelist, Moroccan-born and French-based director Robin Campillo (“BPM (Beats Per Minute)”), admitted that the only thing he watches on Netflix is “a Spanish series with bare-chested men who kill each other, and that makes me happy.”

But he also said that he doesn’t think there’s any reason to fear the future. “It’s true we’re living in strange times, but we’ve always been in strange times,” he said. “When TV was invented, we had Godard and Fellini talking about film versus TV.”

Other directors, including Lynne Ramsay and Cristian Mungiu, are expected to join del Toro on Wednesday for the second half of the symposium.