x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Tough business behind the red carpet glitz at Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival is about more than big names and eye-catching projects. Along the Croisette, talk will also turn to some of the other 2,000 or so films that production companies need to sell and distributors consider buying.

Southland Tales, which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, received a largely negative reception. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films
Southland Tales, which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, received a largely negative reception. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

As directors, producers and stars from world cinema prepare to gather on the French Riviera for the 66th enduringly glitzy Cannes Film Festival, enormous attention will focus on the opening night movie, the latest remake of F Scott Fitzgerald's Roaring Twenties classic, The Great Gatsby.

Audrey Tautou, the French actress who won international acclaim for her role in the 2001 film Amelie, will host both the opening and closing nights, and the US director Steven Spielberg heads the jury.

It is a recipe to ensure a festival with no shortage of star quality.

Industry eyes will focus on how well Gatsby is received, the publicity it generates and how much it is likely to earn at the box office.

If these commercial factors are of lively interest to the director Baz Luhrmann and his main stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, they will weigh even more heavily on the corporate minds of the film's producers, Warner Bros, and all the other companies associated with its progress from idea to screen.

But Cannes is about even more than these big names and eye-catching projects.

Along the Croisette, the resort's chic promenade, in hotel bars and at beach and villa receptions as the festival proceeds, talk will also turn to some of the other 2,000 or so films that production companies need to sell and distributors consider buying.

Beyond the familiar glamour of the red carpet and headline-grabbing launches, Cannes is more than anything about trade as one of the three big international film markets, along with Los Angeles and Berlin.

Screenings will be attended, critics will deliver their verdicts in tweets, the international media and special daily editions of the influential industry publications. And deals will be done, with distributors as anxious not to miss out on a golden opportunity as sellers are eager to secure important contracts.

Reputations will be made, and possibly broken, company prospects defined and careers affected one way or the other.

Peter Carlton, a producer at Warp Films, an independent production company based in London and Melbourne, is only half-joking when he says loved ones left at home should take comfort that "we are all working incredibly hard and not just having a jolly.

"For most people present, it is a market before it is even a film festival," he says.

"Of those 2,000 films that are not in competition or on the officials selections, directors' list and critics lists', many will be seen in airless little rooms but be of a similar quality to the ones showing in the beautiful big theatre screenings."

And with that collection of films of every conceivable genre for sale, according to Mr Carlton, the industry will be busy doing its "bread-and-butter business of selling niche films to the Middle East, cable TV films for Papua New Guinea, films for downloading in northern England."

There is also what he calls cinema's equivalent of the financial futures sector. A film project may have a director, some of the cast and some finance arranged, but its producers will be hoping avid reading of scripts in the run-up to the festival has sparked the further interest needed to find the pieces to complete the jigsaw.

The stakes are considerable. Warp has high hopes that Paul Wright's directing debut, For Those In Peril, will do well at Cannes. Justin Kurzel's directing career outside his native Australia took off after his Snowtown (also known as Snowtown Murders), produced by Warp's Melbourne affiliate, won two special mention awards at the 2011 festival.

In contrast, when the US director Richard Kelly followed his acclaimed Donnie Darko with Southland Tales, its poor reception at the 2006 Cannes was blamed by some observers for its flop at the box office.

There seems little danger of Gatsby suffering a similar fate.

"It promises to be a real cinematographic event," says Wendy Mitchell, the editor of the magazine Screen International. "We expected it out last summer and when it was delayed, people started wondering that maybe it wasn't very good. But the buzz is that it's actually looking great.

"And after the opening night, just about every newspaper in the world will run a photo from the red carpet."

Ms Mitchell says it is the business flip side to the glamour of Cannes that makes it such an important occasion in the film calendar. "Everyone is there. If you're really serious about buying or selling films, you cannot miss it."

Ben Roberts, the director of funding at the British Film Institute (BFI), is another who sees the real work of Cannes happening away from the red carpet.

The BFI is one of the UK's three big funders of British film, along with the BBC and Film Four, and will invest £24 million (Dh137.1m) worth of lottery money in the 2013-14 financial year. Without these backers, independent British cinema production would depend on the whims of studios or private funding and almost certainly suffer.

Mr Roberts sees mainstream film as being in reasonably robust health and the independent sector facing stiff challenges as DVD sales decline without sufficient compensating benefits from digital platforms. The US digital market is showing signs of progress that Mr Roberts hopes will be followed elsewhere.

In Europe, he says, the film industries of France and Germany remain buoyant, while other countries, notably Spain, have been badly hit by film piracy.

Blockbusters may dominate in the public eye and box office returns. But the buyers and sellers attending Cannes will be out to prove that there is life throughout the industry.

"It's undoubtedly tough," says Mr Carlton. "But it is also great to think people still want to go and sit in a dark room and wait to be amazed."