A version of this story about the first 10 years of TheWrap first appeared in TheWrap’s Cannes magazine.
Sharon Waxman launched TheWrap in January 2009, looking for a way to move entertainment journalism to the web. Steve Pond joined later that year as awards editor and edits TheWrap’s print magazines. Prior to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the two sat down for a chat about a decade of TheWrap at Cannes and beyond.
STEVE POND Looking back to 2009, what was your vision for TheWrap when you started it?
SHARON WAXMAN My vision was to try to create a great journalistic read for the industry that was adapted to the digital age. I was mostly worried about journalism disappearing. At the time I had been a New York Times correspondent, and all I was seeing around me was journalists getting fired.
At one point I actually had what I called a pity party at my house, where I invited all the journalists I knew and many journalists I didn’t. They all came — we wanted to talk about what was going to happen to what we considered an important profession in the age of the internet.
And none of us knew how to write for the internet yet, including me. But I had a certain profile, and I thought, “There’s a lot about journalism that’s very similar to entrepreneurship,” which is what I became — an entrepreneur. Because you have to find quick answers to questions you don’t know.
I was thinking, “We have to create a business model that will work to support actually doing journalism.”
We launched the day after Barack Obama was inaugurated. There were four of us in the guesthouse in my backyard with my kid’s dirty laundry on the floor that we stepped over to get to the bathroom. And you joined shortly afterwards.
POND I had done one piece for you in April, and then I heard you were looking for an awards person, so I called and said, “I can do that.” I remember we sat on your couch and you had my clips and you said, “OK, I can see that you can write, but can you write for the internet?”
I had been a successful freelance writer for 25 years at that point, but at that time for people like me, you either learned to write for the internet or you got out of the business.
WAXMAN Actually, most journalists of that generation did get out of the business. And there are plenty who came to TheWrap and said they wanted to to learn. But the truth is it’s a different pace, and most people could not adapt.
POND How did your ideas of what you should be providing change as the industry and the media changed?
WAXMAN Well, what we learned is that people want all kinds of content in all kinds of formats. They want it in text, they want it in photo, they want it on video, they want it on digital, they want it in print, they want to read it on their phones, and they want it whenever they want it. And we have been in the business of adapting to all of that and hopefully staying a step ahead of the curve.
POND What are you proudest of over these last 10 years?
WAXMAN Without a doubt, I am proudest of having created a newsroom where we are training the next generation of digital journalists. We’ve had so many young journalists come here for their first jobs or one of their first jobs out of journalism school.
In some cases it’s been journalists who’ve come from, dare I say, dying institutions, or who were shed from other places and came here and found their best potential and learned to be great journalists. And that really was one of my main aims.
And those first years were brutal. They were so hard. Startups are like that, because nobody asks you to be there, nobody asks you to exist. The two words I had over my desk when we started were “Be Essential.” We have to be an essential read every day. We have to earn it every day, or we may not be here three months from now.
POND You spoke of industry changes, which reminds me that I looked back at our Cannes coverage since 2009, and so many of the things that have happened in the entertainment industry played out in Cannes, as well.
Your first pieces for TheWrap from Cannes were about the industry, especially indie cinema, trying to figure out how to raise money in the aftermath of the recession, and looking overseas for that money. And then we chronicled the new group at Cannes, the dot-com billionaires and their kids who wanted to get into the movie business, like Megan Ellison. Then Ted Sarandos showed up with Netflix, which caused a big controversy. And last year, the #MeToo movement had an enormous impact with the women’s protest and signing the parity pledge.
WAXMAN Well, let’s not even talk about the fact that Harvey Weinstein used to dominate in Cannes every year.
It’s interesting, because most of the movies in Cannes will never play in the United States. And yet I still feel compelled to go just to keep a finger on the pulse of what the cultural conversation is globally. I know you go for similar reasons, but also to get an early look at what the awards season will look like.
POND Most years Cannes doesn’t tell you what’s going to be up for Best Picture at the Oscars, but it certainly tells you what’s going to be in the running for Best International Film [the Academy’s new name for the Best Foreign Language Film category]. And beyond awards, it gives you the state of worldwide cinema at the top level.
WAXMAN That’s right. And it also helps cultivate that great love that we both share for foreign film that gets very short shrift here, and that we’ve embraced in various ways, whether in creating a magazine in Oscar season just for international films or creating a screening series.
Whatever window we can open to our readers and to people in the industry, I think we want to do that. What are some of your favorite things that have happened to you at Cannes?
POND Well, I remember three years ago there was this two-hour-and-42-minute movie on the schedule, I think on a Friday night. I was still jet lagged and I thought, “I really don’t want to see an almost three-hour movie by a German director I don’t know.” It was “Toni Erdmann,” and it bowled me over, start to finish.
And I immediately called the publicist and said, “I’ve got to talk to this director, Maren Ade.” And so I interviewed her then and saw her a couple months later in Toronto, and then she came and did our screening series and her movie got nominated for an Oscar and bought for an English-language remake.
WAXMAN One of my most memorable things has nothing to do with movies. It was probably seven or eight years ago. I had just gotten to Cannes from the Nice airport and my phone rang. It was Ryan Kavanaugh from Relativity, who was calling to ask me to come immediately to the Hotel Du Cap to vouch for him about a story that I had written.
I had gotten ahold of the budget for “Robin Hood” and had published it, which our friends at Universal were not happy about. I’m like, “OK, you pay for the cab and I’ll come to the Hotel Du Cap and vouch for you to all the muckety-mucks from Universal.”
I just dumped my stuff in my room and got a cab, went over to the Hotel Du Cap and there is the upper executive echelon from Universal. It was like walking into “The Great Gatsby,” this magnificent hotel with these beautiful old white pillars. And they were all in black tie smoking cigars on the back terrace. And I was like, “I’m here. I cannot tell you my source. I could have told you on the phone that I wouldn’t tell you my source, you know.”
Let’s talk just for a minute about how we put together the Cannes magazine, which is the most amazing feat that you and Ada Guerin, our creative director, do every year.
POND It’s one of the things that makes me craziest while we’re doing it, and one of the things I enjoy the most once it’s done. You don’t know the lineup of Cannes until less than a month before the festival starts, and the centerpiece of the magazine every year is a portfolio of directors with films in the festival.
The first year we just thought, “Let’s try to photograph some directors,” and we ended up getting the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas, Damien Chazelle, Bennett Miller, Mike Leigh — all of these great directors posed for us and our photographers all around the world.
So now every year I’m up at 3 a.m. looking at the list and thinking, “OK, who do I contact for Jafar Panahi in Tehran?” And the crazy thing is we did get Jafar Panahi in Tehran last year.
WAXMAN Wasn’t there a time when our photographer had to get on a train not knowing if the shoot would happen when he arrived?
POND That was the first year. We had a photographer to shoot the Dardenne brothers, who were in Paris, but we didn’t know for sure if they could do it, and we didn’t know if they’d be with Marion Cotillard, who we were thinking about putting on the cover.
He took the train and he was able to shoot the Dardennes, but Marion wasn’t there. And in fact, that was one of the reasons we turned this into a directors portfolio — when we got the Dardennes without Marion, we thought, “You know what? Cannes is a directors’ festival, we’ll make this a directors’ portfolio.”
WAXMAN Didn’t we get one director between planes?
POND That was Bong Joon Ho, the Korean director of “Okja,” who is back in the festival this year with “Parasite.” He was traveling, and he had a short break between planes where we could shoot him in a hotel in Santa Monica, just a couple of miles from our office. He stepped into the garden of this hotel, and we got some amazing photos.
Read more from TheWrap’s Cannes magazine.