Cannes film festival signals industry reopening for business after pandemic | Cannes 2021

Cecilia Nysing

It represents a huge step forward to something like normality in the film industry: the Cannes international film festival is reopening for business on Tuesday after cancellation of its physical edition last year. The ebb and flow of the coronavirus pandemic forced the festival, and its thousands of attendees from both the film business and the media, to change its plans on multiple occasions, and it will finally achieve lift-off with the world premiere of the Sparks musical Annette, Cannes’ first in-person screening since May 2019.

Eve Gabereau, managing director of UK distributor Modern Films, says it is “surreal, crazy and daunting” to return to Cannes, but that “it is important and great to be going – for the industry at large, professionally for my company, and for me personally”.

She adds: “Cannes is so important because of the buzz created around new films and talent, that allows us as an industry to come together and to build the year ahead, both for local markets and on a global scale. There are of course other great festivals that fulfil a similar role but there is something about Cannes – it feels like the starting point of it all.”

Traditionally, with its competition, special screenings and associated events, Cannes has provided a platform for independent and non-English language films, and its awards – led by the Palme d’Or – can propel even the most obscure product of world cinema to international acclaim. At the same time, its high-profile red-carpet premieres provide a dose of paparazzi glamour that rivals the Academy Awards. And operating concurrently to the festival is the perennially busy Cannes Marché du Film, where producers sell their films to distributors all over the world in what amounts to a giant industry trade fair.

Adam Driver, left, and Marion Cotillard in Annette, which will open Cannes Photograph: AP

Colin Vaines, producer of films such as Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and Coriolanus, says he isn’t planning to visit this year, despite being a regular attender since 1978 (“I’m personally not convinced about the wisdom of attending large events at this time”) but says the business aspect of Cannes is “the most important element of the festival”. “It’s the opportunity to sell and promote projects, meet old colleagues from around the world and forge new connections. It’s a place where business and pleasure really come together.”

The re-emergence of Cannes will plug a vital gap in the film industry ecosystem, which has been left in tatters by the pandemic. The global industry was estimated to have lost around $32bn in 2020. With both cinemas and film shoots forced to shut down in the early months, and then compelled to operate under strict restrictions when opening was permitted, the vast majority of film consumption retreated online, while the big event movie money-makers – such as No Time to Die – were put off until more suitable conditions emerged. Gabereau’s Modern Films was instrumental in pioneering a virtual cinema platform in the UK that enabled cinemas to help make up the shortfall in audiences, but any film companies without ready access to a streaming platform suffered considerably.

Gabereau says that Cannes’ effective cancellation in 2020, when it abandoned its physical event and instead issued a list of “labelled” films, was not a complete disaster, as “everything and everyone were on hold” anyway. But the Cannes 2020 label did prove helpful, with high-profile performances for titles such as Another Round, Ammonite, Sweat and Slalom. Gabereau adds: “We acquired Viggo Mortensen’s Falling which we released in December and were able to [get] Creative Europe’s MEDIA support for distribution of it. The film did well for us and it was a big title in our slate last year. The unknown of festivals can lead to additional business.” Conversely, Gabereau says she didn’t miss the stress of the market. “Not acquiring films under the pressure and prices of normal Cannes was quite liberating, at least for a year.”

The lineup of films for the 2021 festival is particularly strong after the pandemic prompted many film-makers to hold back their work: this year sees premieres for new films from acclaimed directors such as Paul Verhoeven, Joanna Hogg, Todd Haynes and Gaspar Noé. And with cinemas beginning to record box-office figures comparable to pre-pandemic levels for releases such as Fast & Furious 9 and A Quiet Place Part II, there is the sense that the film industry is beginning to turn the corner. Gabereau is confident that Cannes, with due precautions, is “a return to normal, an exciting one at that, but a cautionary one.” Vaines agrees. “The return of Cannes is another sign of recovery for the business, though I suspect we’ll never fully return to how things were pre-pandemic.”

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