The most famous film festival in the world is being held in France—spewing a mountain of celeb stories and photos that crowd our timelines. But what do we really know about Cannes?
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
Cannes: the backstory
There have been 77 editions of the festival—staged every year in May since 1946. The glitzy event fronted by a truly global A-list of celebrities began as an act of rebellion against fascism. Here’s what happened:
- Mostra di Venezia was the first-ever international film festival—staged at the peak of fascist power in Europe.
- Its highest prize was named Coppa Mussolini—after Benito Mussolini. And the politicisation of the festival had become more blatant over the years.
- In 1937, the guest of honour, Joseph Goebbels—the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda—attacked Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece ‘The Grand Illusion’—calling it “Cinematic Public Enemy Number One.”
- A year later, the top prize was jointly won by two pro-fascist films from Germany and Italy—Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’ and Goffredo Alessandrini’s ‘Luciano Serra, Pilot’.
- Outraged at the blatant favouritism, France, the US and Great Britain decided to boycott the Mostra.
- And French diplomat Philippe Erlanger soon began working toward creating a French alternative—called ‘Festival International du Film.’ FYI: Cannes was selected over other contenders like Biarritz because it had better hotels.
- It launched on September 1, 1939—the very same day as the Mostra—and the day when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland.
- On September 3, World War II was declared—and the festival was put on the backburner after screening just one film: ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ directed by William Dieterle.
The post-war years: The first full-fledged festival was held in Cannes in 1946—featuring now-classic films such as Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’. Each of the ten countries represented at the festival won a prize.
In 1953, the festival was moved from the fall to spring—to give a boost to off-season tourism. But the real boost to the festival came from an unexpected corner: an actress named Simone Silva—who took her top off during a photo shoot with actor Robert Mitchum in 1954:
The public wasn’t necessarily interested in a film festival, but after the hardships of a post-WWII era, people around the world were totally gaga over the image of a Hollywood movie star and a topless woman. From then on, publicity-seeking actresses regularly bared their breasts for photographers on the Riviera. And though the fest asked Silva to leave town, she turned out to be a key factor in putting the festival on the map. Because thanks to her, everybody knew the name Cannes, which quickly became synonymous with cinema, art — and sex.
Irony alert: In 2011, provocative Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier got himself banned for saying this at a press conference:
What can I say? I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit… But come on, I am not for the second world war, and I am not against Jews. I am very much for Jews; well not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence ... OK I’m a Nazi.
He was not allowed back until 2018—when he upset the audience once again with the extreme violence of his film ‘The House That Jack Built.’
The evolution of Cannes
The modern incarnation: The festival acquired the same name as its location only in 2002. The highest prize is called Palme d’Or (Golden Palm)—and was introduced in 1955—discarded soon after—and then reclaimed in 1975. Given to the best feature film, the present-day version is “made of 24-carat gold, is hand cast into a wax mould, then affixed to a cushion of a single piece of cut crystal and is now presented in a case of blue morocco leather.” It looks like this:
The second prize is known as the Grand Prix—and the festival also awards the prestigious jury prize, as well.
The mission: Winning a prize at Cannes is far more prestigious than scoring an Oscar. The film festival prides itself on being truly global—and has launched the careers of some of the greatest directors—from Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) to Bong Joon-ho (Parasite). And it has a long reputation of nurturing avant garde filmmaking—having helped launch the New Wave movement in French cinema in the 1950s. The festival today has a parallel category called Un Certain Regard (a certain look)—which is all about new horizons and filmmakers.
Festival director Thierry Frémaux sums it up, saying:
[T]he Festival de Cannes has remained faithful to its founding purpose: to draw attention to and raise the profile of films, with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level.
Success at Cannes carries weight around the world. Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ went on to become an Oscar winner—introducing the rest of the world to Korean cinema. In 2021, the Best Screenplay award went to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ‘Drive My Car’—which was then nominated for four Academy Awards: “That’s a pretty astonishing journey for a three-hour Japanese movie about grief and Chekhov.”
Guardian of old-fashioned filmmaking: Unlike other film festivals or awards, Cannes has remained steadfast in its commitment to cinema—the kind screened in theatres, not streamed on an online platform. And its ongoing feud with Netflix is testimony to its faith—or stubbornness, if you prefer.
As per Cannes’ requirements, there has to be a 15-month gap between a movie’s release in theatres—and when it drops online. And it must have a theatrical release in France—for it to be entered for competition. In 2018, Netflix got so angry at these rules aimed specifically at outlawing streaming films—that it withdrew all its productions from the festival. And it has not returned since. But Cannes has no intention of ceding ground, as festival director Frémaux makes plain: “The world is changing, but Cannes is a film festival that defends theatres.”
The business of films: This isn’t to say that Cannes has remained trapped in an ivory tower. Film du Marché, the cinematic equivalent of a trade conference, was introduced in 1959. It has since become a game-changer for the global industry—attended by 12,500 industry professionals with over 30 screening venues. As one producer explains, “80% of the business in the film industry is done...at this particular market.”
Most importantly, the deals struck at Marché du Film determine a film’s distribution—and often its fate:
“Specialty distributors” — that is, movie distributors that specialise in finding ways to get audiences for foreign, arthouse, and other niche films — often make their most important deals of the year at the festival. Filmmakers who hope to find funding and distribution for their films spend their days at Cannes networking with financiers, distributors, and publicists from all over the world.
The business of fashion: The Cannes red carpet—as much as the Oscars—is an opportunity for celebrities to make a splash—and extend their global brand. Example: Madonna who dropped her coat to reveal “a white satin cone bra, knickers and a garter belt set:
In 1957, Elizabeth Taylor came dressed as Hollywood royalty–with a glittering Cartier tiara:
Thirty years later, a real princess—Diana—made a splash with one of her iconic dresses:
But, but, but: The real fashion heavyweight at Cannes is L’Oreal—which has sponsored the festival since 1997. And the red carpet has become a catwalk for its brand ambassadors—from Eva Longoria to Aishwarya Rai. As CEO Jean-Paul Agon put it in 2015: “The beauty of Cannes is that it’s a singular opportunity to gather our girls.” The presence of brands is now writ large—and often in danger of defining the festival’s image:
Brands have also invaded the Croisette, drafting off the festival's glamorous aesthetic but sometimes drawing attention away from the movies themselves. “There was a before and an after L’Oreal—because once it came here [as a sponsor], models started coming here and the festival became a ‘scene,’” said Charlotte Gainsbourg, who attends Cannes this year for Ismael's Ghosts. “Before it wasn't only a scene. It really had to do first with films.”
Point to note: Indians have benefited most from the commercial side of Cannes—though our films haven’t won an award in decades. This year, Shark Tank India judge Aman Gupta made his debut as the “first entrepreneur from India” to walk the red carpet. Other odd appearances included social media influencer Dolly Singh and former cricketer Anil Kumble. Most of them are on the red carpet as brand ambassadors. But others are just enterprising enough to land a ticket to one of the big premieres:
If you hustle enough for a ticket to a premiere, dress right and do your hair and make-up right, it is easy enough to get your five seconds of fame and walk the teeny tiny red carpet that looks so impressive on camera and leads up to the Palais de Festival. Cannes is all about knowing when to show up, and flashing a ticket to cross the barrier from being a gawker to a glamazon.
Data point to note: According to the National Film Development Corporation's guide, over 80 Indian companies had representatives at the festival back in 2017. The number is likely far higher today.
The bottomline: We look forward to a time when we will all be talking about Indian movies on the screen—rather than the overpaid celebs preening on the red carpet.
- For a walk through Cannes history: Read The Conversation and The Backstage. See pics over at Tatler.
- Why does Cannes still matter? Vox offers an overview—while TIME lays out why the festival is important for movie lovers around the world. BBC News looks at whether it is still number one.
- New York Times has a lovely roundup of iconic fashion moments—while Hollywood Reporter explains what a brand ambassador does at Cannes.
- Vanity Fair has an excellent list of Cannes’ most controversial moments.
- Collider and Hollywood Reporter compare the Oscars to Cannes.
- For an India angle, read Forbes and Economic Times on why our films rarely compete at the festival.