Playing it Safe at Cannes

Why this year's international film festival may fall short as a proving ground for innovation and adventure in moviemaking.

The celebrities, the topless beaches, the red carpets – the Cannes Film Festival is typically a lavish affair, but also a place where people who are serious about movies come together to launch films and make or break filmmaking careers. But this year could be different. In the midst of a global recession, the movie industry is becoming increasingly risk-averse, and that conservative streak is bleeding into Cannes, an 11-day event that starts this week. Some fear that the festival may fail to live up to its reputation as a proving ground for innovation and adventure in filmmaking.

Cannes has long been known for spotting new talents and bringing them to widespread attention.  As Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, puts it, the festival is "the largest film marketplace in the world." With thousands of screenings each year, most of them world premiers, the festival is a Mecca for distributors seeking to "move quickly and identify films that have merit."  In recent years, Bernard and his team have discovered films at Cannes like Austria's The Counterfeiters and Germany's The Lives of Others. After Sony Pictures secured distribution rights for both films, they went on to become international hits, winning Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.  At this month's festival, there will be nearly 10,000 producers and distributors from 101 countries, seeking to cut deals on the banks of the Riviera.

Cannes is also a boon to directors from across the globe.  Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg (The Fly, Eastern Promises) says that earning a spot in the festival's central line-up of 52 films, known as the “Official Selection, ” is an opportunity to show your film on "one of the most visible platforms." Cronenberg's films have thrived in this prime-time setting, earning awards and critical accolades that have sealed his reputation internationally.  The exposure he’s received at Cannes has also meant increased commercial prospects for his work, an important consideration for a director whose filmic portraits of venereal slugs, drug-addled gynecologists and Russian mobsters won't always make it to your local multiplex. If you have made "a very heavy duty art film that does not have a lot of distribution around the world," he explains, Cannes is "a good place to find that distribution."

Of course, Cronenberg is also quick to point out the risks of debuting a film under the bright lights of Cannes. If your work is reviled there by critics, or simply ignored, "it's a gamble that has failed,” he says, “and can actually damage your film forever." Cannes "can make or break a career," agrees film critic Kieron Corless, the author of Cannes: Inside the World's Premier Film Festival. "It's that intense."

This atmosphere has been known to produce extreme and unusual behavior. In the heat of festival fever, critics may erupt into a standing ovation at the end of a film, as they did for Cronenberg's A History of Violence in 2005, but they are just as likely to unleash boos and hisses, a misfortune that befell his film Crash in 1996. And filmmakers are by no means immune to the movie madness. Spike Lee threatened to beat Jury President Wim Wenders with a baseball bat when his film Do The Right Thing was shut out of a prize in 1989. The festival's Palais du Film, a monumental building that houses gala screenings, is fittingly nicknamed "Le Bunker."

But there are signs that this year’s festival could be devoid of its usual manic energy. With the world struggling through recession, Cannes’ yacht rental firms have seen declines in bookings, caterers are dropping the usual foie gras and champagne from party menus, and festival president Gilles Jacob has predicted that fewer industry professionals will make their annual transatlantic pilgrimage. More importantly, the effects of the economic downturn may also be felt in the festival's competition. Only two American movies—Quentin Tarantino's  Inglourious Basterds and Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock—are in this year's contest, the lowest U.S. turnout since 2006.  While the festival’s artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, has said the lack of U.S. films has more to do with production schedules than economic concerns, film industry trade papers have suggested that American studios, increasingly conscious of their bottom line this year, were hesitant to open themselves up to the Cannes critics and their poison pens.

A "play it safe” mentality may also have set in among the festival's programmers. Of the 21 films in this year's competition, there are four previous winners of the Palme D’Or, the festival's highest honor, but not a single director whose work is new to Cannes. It’s quite possible that the work of international heavyweights like Pedro Almodovar, Lars Von Trier and Jane Campion will wow audiences at this year’s festival. But if their new films disappoint, it will only confirm criticisms that Cannes is in danger of becoming too clubby—a development with serious implications for the industry. "Cannes is instrumental more than any institution in mainstreaming auteur cinema,” notes Kieron Corless. With "fewer and fewer outlets for art cinema, this means that more radical talents are getting squeezed out.”

But it would be unfair to write Cannes off as a showcase for the already-established based solely on its programming choices during a recession year. And while the 62nd annual festival does feature a familiar cast of characters, there are still, as Corless points out, plenty of filmmakers in this year's festival that no one’s ever heard of. The offerings of the next generation of David Cronenbergs could well be lurking in the festival’s lower-profile lineup of short films or in the Director’s Fortnight, a film series held each year at Cannes for new and experimental talent. The question is whether the critics and industry bigwigs at this year’s festival will take the trouble to seek them out.