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Musings From a First-Timer at Cannes Film Festival

Ah, the Cannes Film Festival. Where glitzy red carpet premieres and ball-gown and tuxedo-clad celebrities abound, everyone drinking champagne, hobnobbing and dancing until the break of dawn. Oh, the glamour of it all...

... or so I mused while on my flight to France, reading aloud a French phrase book a friend lent me, practicing hiding my Midwestern accent while pronouncing “Bonjour,” “Bonsoir,” and “Je m’appelle Rebecca.” (I think the guy in the seat next to me enjoyed that for 9 hours.)

It turns out that “Parlez-vous Anglais?” (Do you speak English?) was the most useful phrase of the trip by far.

I arrived at my destination in Cannes, a coach house called the Suite Castellino (most of the properties in Cannes have formal names). I was haggard and sleepless because of a two-year old child on my trip over, who felt the need to kick the back of my seat for the duration of the flight, yelling “Duck, Duck, GOOSE!” (KICK), “Duck, Duck, GOOSE!” (KICK). But there I was, finally, in Cannes! And I was determined to enjoy myself.

And enjoy myself I did. Writer/Director/Producer Kevin Resnick and I went to Cannes to represent a film he wrote and directed and we both co-produced, On Becoming A Man, which was selected for the Short Film Corner at Cannes.

Short Film Corner

Short Film Corner

What’s the Short Film Corner, you ask?

It’s a relatively new program at Cannes, where filmmakers can submit a short film, and if selected, the film is uploaded onto a Cannes-only online database. Interested parties can then view these short films on-demand at computer booths set up in the Short Film Corner area of the festival. The Short Film Corner also features meeting and screening rooms, and hosts industry panels, breakfasts with distributors, happy hours (free Stella Artois) and other networking events. Filmmakers can hang posters and distribute promo materials for their shorts. It’s really a fantastic resource.

We came armed with business cards, postcards, a one-sheet for my web series Split, and a 12-page prospectus for our upcoming feature in development, The Amazing Adventures of Average Ben.

We quickly learned some lessons about how Cannes works and some behind-the-scenes insight on the business of film.

Lesson #1: Nobody really wants to hear about your upcoming feature in development (to our chagrin).

Let me explain.

The Cannes Film Festival can be roughly divided into two parts:

1) The Festival (screenings, premieres, panels, celebrity interviews, paparazzi)
2) The Film Market (where business gets done, films get sold, deals get made)

The Marchè du Film (Film Market) can be compared to an enormous upscale flea market, where merchants (producer’s reps/sales agents) have booths where they sell their wares (films) to buyers (distributors). The Marchè du Film comprises several floors of the giant megaplex that is the main hub of all things Cannes: the Palais des Festivals. The structure itself is beautiful, massive, and overwhelming, much like the festival itself!

Kevin Resnick and Rebecca Norris in front of the Palais des Festivals

Kevin Resnick and Rebecca Norris in front of the Palais des Festivals

On the inside, it reminded me of Home and Garden Expos or Auto Shows I have been to at huge convention centers, where you get a badge and drop by booths where sales reps talk to you about their products. Only at Cannes they’re not selling a new kind of fertilizer or this year’s most gas-efficient Honda: they’re selling films.

The reason few people are interested in hearing about your projects in development is because companies attend Cannes with the main purpose of selling the completed films they already have on their slate. Chances are they have already filled their days with appointments set weeks or months in advance, from people they met at other film festivals, or buyers they hope to make deals with.

It is incredibly busy and crowded, and people are busting their butts all day long with early-morning breakfasts, meetings from sunrise to sunset, attending networking parties that go until 2 AM, then wash, rinse, repeat. Of course, these folks are on the French Riviera in springtime, so who can really complain, but it is all in a day’s work. It can be overwhelming and exhausting for everyone involved.

Now does all of this mean you, independent filmmaker, can’t go around and make connections in the Film Market? Of course not! We connected with and got business cards from a number of sales agents, distributors, investors, and even a film office commissioner, who gave us a lot of great advice on how to make the most of our time at Cannes. For our short film, a film festival director in Panama heard of On Becoming A Man and invited us to drop by a DVD for consideration for her festival. We also received an invite from an Italian film festival, giving us a deadline extension to submit our film to their festival because it was at Cannes. Good things can certainly happen!

However, you should avoid going to Cannes your first time with sky-high hopes of pitching your upcoming feature film and getting pre-sales from distributors or finding investors.

Now if you target the right companies (some companies only represent comedies, or horror, or thrillers), drop by when there’s a lull in the action, and succinctly introduce your project and your promo materials, and if it’s commercially viable or you’ve got some name talent attached, you may find yourself in an impromptu meeting. Kevin is masterful at working the room. (I do okay myself too.) Although it’s not completely unheard of to get investors or co-producers on board for your indie film this way, it is rare.

One sales company took a DVD of our short as a sample of our work, but most wanted us to follow up with them after the craziness of the festival in a month or so, with information and a password-protected link to our short film. They simply don’t want to be carrying dozens of DVDs back with them on the airplane. You may also randomly meet investors around the Film Market who are looking for their next project to fund, but it’s much better to have set up meetings in advance.

So how does one set up appointments in advance of the festival?

We learned a great tool is, an online database of film producers and distributors, that you’re able to get connected with via your film being at Cannes. Before the festival, Cannes sends out an email with your login, and you can create a profile and download the complete contact list of all of the distributors, sales agents, and production companies that will be in attendance. You can then call or email them directly and hopefully set up some meetings for your time at Cannes.

At the Short Film Corner, they also provided lists of international distributors who specialize in buying short films, and organized breakfasts and small groups where filmmakers were able to individually meet with distributors and discuss their work.

If you already have a completed feature film, do your best to get a reputable sales agent or producer’s rep on board who’s connected to domestic and international markets prior to coming to Cannes. If not, you may possibly be able to find some interested parties while at Cannes who can represent your film at upcoming markets, but it’s always better to have a (good) agent in your corner at Cannes if you are able.

That being said, it’s important to do your homework and find out the kinds of films each company specializes in at Cannes rather than doing the “spaghetti on the wall” approach and emailing everyone. Know your audience and your buyer, and perfect your pitch to make the most of your brief meetings, impromptu or otherwise.

Lesson #2: Go for the first seven days of the festival.

Although the festival is 12 days long, the first half of the festival is where all the business gets done. If you have the time and funds to attend the entire festival, that’s great, but if you want to get business done, choose arriving the day before the festival starts on the first week and leaving the middle of the second week. For us, by Wednesday of the second week, the Film Market had all but shut down and much of the Palais was a ghost town, even though the festival still had 5 more days left to go!

Due to a filming conflict in my schedule, Kevin was able to attend a few days earlier than I was, and had set himself up with a couple of advance meetings and a breakfast, as well as an invitation to a dinner party via a prior connection of mine. All of this happened in the first few days of the festival, though, so it’s good to know when you should schedule your trip.

I was able to attend an invite-only small group discussion on Short Film Sales with a distributor that was held in the second week, but there are fewer and fewer events scheduled as the festival progresses. Cannes sends emails out in the weeks prior to the festival where you can submit your CV to be considered for these events.

Lesson # 3: Put yourself out there and say hello!

Village Internationale

Village Internationale

The most important thing you can do at Cannes is to circulate and put yourself in a position to meet other people. Even if you don’t have meetings set up, don’t despair. Walk around the Film Market or sit in the nearby pavilions on the beach (every country participating in the festival has a tent around the Palais representing their country’s films; it’s called the Village International.)

This International Village is a great place to meet filmmakers, investors, distributors, and other professionals in a relaxed environment right on the sands of the Mediterranean. The American Pavilion provides a great venue to meet folks in your same boat that you can reconnect with once you’re back home. Sadly, the American Pavilion is the only one that charges an entry fee, of 15 euro (approximately 20 USD) per day, and also charges for most drinks. We enjoyed the German pavilion, where both the entry and the coffee were free!

When meeting people, be yourself and don’t always talk about business. Make friends with folks first and you never know where it may lead. You can secure invitations to private parties by making friends while walking around the Film Market and the International Village. You just never know.

Lesson #4: Take a break from business and try to see some films!

The Film Market is so overwhelming that at some point you will likely need to take a step back. This is the perfect opportunity to try to see your fellow artists’ films. Note I said “try.” Wait, you’re thinking, it’s a film festival. Isn’t it obvious I would be seeing films, as many as I want? Not quite so at Cannes. Although there are many theaters at Cannes, there are well over 200,000 other festivalgoers who are all clamoring to get seats to films, particularly the star-studded red carpet premieres.

Some films only require the presence of your festival badge for entry, and you can arrive early to wait in line and take your chances at getting in. Many films, however, including all of the red carpet premieres and screenings at the main Grand Thèatre Lumière require invitations.

How do you get an invitation?

Well, if you’re a first-timer like we were, you can’t, really. The Cannes web-based ticketing system is incredibly complicated and biased, and doles tickets out based on a combination of seniority, status, and a number of other unknown factors you have no control over. When I logged onto the ticketing system for the first time, every screening for that day and the following few days were already sold out of invitations.

A quick tangent: I had an interesting experience my very first day, just hours after arriving in Cannes.

Groggy and severely jetlagged, I walked with Kevin down to the Palais to get my accreditation badge. It was an absolute madhouse. The streets were clogged with honking cars and, much like at the Academy Awards, there were hundreds of people lining the streets to get a glimpse of celebrities. There were hundreds more in line for the premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, who were all walking the red carpet at that very moment.

Dozens of people stood in front of the Palais in tuxedos and dresses, holding out signs asking for tickets to the screening. I had no idea what was going on; I had been awake for over 30 hours at that point and was seeing double.

The Red Carpet at Cannes

The Red Carpet at Cannes

Suddenly, a man approached me. Our conversation went something like this:

Man: Do you want an invitation?

Me: Huh?

Man: Do you want an invitation?

Me: To what? (A party, I’m thinking? All I really wanted to do was sleep!)

Man: To the screening.

Me: (oblivious) What screening?

He shoved a metallic folded piece of paper in my hand and took off. Bewildered, I opened it; it was an invitation to the very Soderbergh film that dozens of people were clamoring for right in front of me. Why had he given it to me? Because I wasn’t holding a sign?

Suddenly I found myself barraged by people speaking at me in French. Keep in mind that just earlier that day I was having trouble pronouncing “Au revoir” (good-bye) correctly. (I silently scolded myself for choosing to study Spanish in high school instead of French.) I had no idea what the people were saying, but I’m sure they wanted the invitation. I ran away to hide in the Palais.

Sadly, neither Kevin nor I were able to take advantage of this spur-of-the-moment opportunity because we weren’t dressed in the required formal attire. Men must wear tuxedos, and women must wear a ball gown or elegant dress and heels to all red carpet premieres. There was no time to go back to our Suite Castellino, a 30-minute walk both ways, to change.

Lesson 4.5: Unless your hotel room is right across the street, always bring formal dress with you to the festival so you can change quickly when opportunity knocks.

(FYI - The invitation was passed forward properly and did not end up going to waste.)

Okay, back to the Cannes ticketing system. So after my first day, it was quite disheartening to realize that there would not be tickets left to any premieres, and we may not get into any films at all for the rest of the festival. All along, I had assumed that we would, of course, be walking the red carpet! Rubbing elbows with celebs! Attending fab after-parties on the beach!

Which brings me to--

Lesson #5: It never hurts to ask.

The Festival Gods were shining down on us on my third day as we stopped by the main ticketing booth at the Palais. We asked the ladies at the booth, why can’t we get into any films? We traveled all the way here! Can you help us navigate this crazy ticketing system?

The supremely kind and patient ticketing professionals gave us the scoop: we, as newcomers and short filmmakers, were, quite frankly, low on the totem pole as far as status. People with ‘higher’ badges and more seniority were able to log into the ticketing system hours or days before us to get invitations. Additionally, people who have already been attending films all week have been building up ‘points’ in their account also that grant them earlier access to the system.


“But,” we argued, “that’s a Catch-22, because we’d love to see films to build up points, but we can’t get into any films, so we can’t build up any points.”

The very kind-hearted ticketing agent smiled. “Let me see what I can do.” She talked to her manager, and explained our situation. The manager said there were still a few orchestra-level tickets that weren’t claimed for a late premiere that night, and would we like to go? “What film is it?” we asked. A three-hour long film in French about teenage lesbian lovers, that won’t let out until after 1 AM.

Wow. Kevin and I looked at each other and shrugged. “We’ll take it.”

Kevin and Rebecca at the 'La Vie D’Adele' premiere

Kevin and Rebecca at the 'La Vie D’Adele' premiere

Turns out it was our best decision of the festival. We arrived at about 9 PM in black tie to wait in line. At about 9:30, they opened the floodgates and let all of us pour onto the red carpet. It was chaotic and surreal. That morning, I had been practically in tears about not getting into any screenings, and that night, I was dressed up in a velvet ball gown, Kevin in a tux, floating down the red carpet, getting our picture snapped by photographers, feeling like celebrities.

When we arrived in the theater, we were ushered to our seats, and soon realized that we were positioned in the same row as the director and stars of the film. It was a treat to watch the film with the filmmakers just down the aisle. The film was gorgeous, raw, maddening, heartbreaking, shocking, and mesmerizing. After the film ended, we all gave the film a well-deserved 15-minute-long standing ovation.

That film, “La Vie D’Adele” (or “Blue is the Warmest Color,” its English title) went on to win the Palme d’Or, and we got to be a part of the excitement of its premiere. Not to mention a fab party afterwards down the street.

It never hurts to ask.

I’m sure there’s more to share, but these are the main lessons I took away from my experience in Cannes. Kevin and I both learned a lot, grew as producers and writers, made connections, attended fun parties, and saw amazing films. (We were able to get into a morning screening on a following day.) We’re grateful to have attended Cannes, and with any luck, we’ll be back next year!

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