It might have been one of the wettest Cannes Film Festivals in living memory, but from from the point of view of the industry, it had to be good news – those spare moments that critics and buyers alike might have spent relaxing on the beach would instead have been spent in the many cinemas and screening rooms that litter the Riviera town that hosts the biggest and most important combined festival and market of the film calendar.
The festival ended as it begun; with the competition line-up being filled with directors who’d had films up for the Palme d’Or before, there was always a chance that the prize itself would go to a previous winner, and so it did. Austria’s polyglot director Michael Haneke, who last won for the German-language The White Ribbon in 2009, collected the Palme d’Or again for Love, about an elderly French couple, learning but struggling to cope with the consequences of the wife’s stroke. Pitch perfect performances from Jean-Louis Trintingant and Emanuelle Riva made it almost inevitable from the moment the film was screened that it would be seen as this year’s masterpiece.
An unusually high number of English language films in competition – many starring some of the biggest Hollywood stars – failed to walk away with any prizes. Brad Pitt couldn’t turn Killing Them Softly into gold, Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey failed to deliver for The Paperboy and Kristen Stewart couldn’t put the Kerouac adaptation On The Road to success.
But Ken Loach, a former winner of the Palme d’Or himself, didn’t go away empty handed. The third prize – the Jury Prize – was awarded to his soon-to-be-released social comedy The Angels’ Share. In itself, warm-hearted and entertaining, the film was one of the few to court controversy at this year’s festival – both for being screened with English subtitles and for the film makers’ attack on the BBFC for making them reduce the number of swear-words. The producer Rebecca O’Brien insisted that the actors, including newcomer Paul Brannigan, were just speaking naturally. Brannigan, who until being cast worked just a few hours a week as a youth football coach, told reporters that being part of this film “saved his life.” He’s since starred alongside Scarlett Johansson.
The consensus from the Croisette was that it was a strong year for competition films. The Evening Standard critic Derek Malcolm said the best of this year’s selection were the European films, such as Romania’s Beyond the Hills and Haneke’s Love, which he’s already predicting will be up for an Oscar next year, suggesting that it “hits all the marks for the elderly members of the Academy.”
So, with the recent shake-up of the London Film Festival leaving it able to screen “the best of the rest,” what better place for its new boss Clare Stewart to come to find films? She said her time was split between watching films for consideration and meeting film-makers to keep an eye on what’s going on in the market. But she doesn’t see Cannes as a competitor. “I think that festivals around the world inhabit a unique position in terms of what they offer. Good festival direction is about juggling what that means. It’s always a balancing act. You’re competing for films, but you’re not competiting as festivals.”
But what makes Cannes stand out from festivals such as London is the market that runs alongside it. From Sacha Baron Cohen’s publicity stunt – as the Dictator on a camel – to the rained-off world-premiere of the first Skyfall trailer that was meant to take place on the beach, Cannes is as much about promoting and selling films as it is exhibiting them.
For all levels of the industry, whether it’s directors selling shorts at the Short Film Corner or major studios plastering the deluxe hotels with billboards, Cannes is the place to be every May. This was the third year that London director Brian Barnes had a film in the Short Film Corner, but with The Urge having won three awards on the festival circuit, he said he was being taken more seriously this time. “People want to know everything about the film and everything about me. They want to talk about my feature projects. It really opens doors, being here with an award-winning short.”
Further down the line, acquisitions executive-turned-producer Ben Friedman from Native State Productions is just finishing his debut feature Last Passenger, a year after money raised from pre-sales at Cannes helped him finance the project. A mock-trailer screened on the Croisette last year tweaked the interest of a number of sales agents and distributors worldwide. “Cannes was very important for Last Passenger last year because it’s where it all kicked off.” A year later, his company is well on the way to putting together the financing package of its second feature.
Producer Alexis Varouxakis and director Rudolf Buitendach were the next stage along in the process, screening their completed debut feature, Dark Hearts at the market. It’s a psyhological thriller about a struggling artist who develops a new style when he finds the perfect paint from the most unexpected source. “In the indy world today, completing the film is the halfway mark,” notes the director. Rather than just letting the producers sell the film and moving onto his next project, he says without a big marketing budget, it’s all about having a personal presence at screenings. Varouxakis says the second part of the process, coming to Cannes, is all about creating a buzz and getting the right people to see the movie. “For an independent movie, you need to find the right company to support you.” Buitendach adds that almost more important than getting a good response in Cannes is just being in the market guide, so that people can follow up and get in touch with you later.
The kind of person that all of these film-makers need to get on side, whether it’s to help them finance a project or sell it, is someone like Phil Hunt, from Bankside Films, whose projects this year include the upcoming Ill Manors, the 2011 London Film Festival hit Trishna and the period piece Belle, which is in pre-production. He acknowledged that in these days of austerity, the market is a little less grand, but no less productive. “We buyers and sellers in Cannes are cutting our budgets, so we’re not holding massive villa parties anymore and the ‘Bankers’ Row’ of yachts isn’t happening anymore. But although the fun remains in the business, it’s really about the quality of films now. There’s a wider gap between the good and the bad.”
But as well as being about exhibiting and selling specific films, Cannes is also about boosting the film business in general and the BFI were down on the Croisette, trying to persuade foreign financiers to invest in the UK – whether it’s funding British productions or, as studios such as Universal and Warner Brothers are increasingly doing, shooting their Hollywood movies on our shores. Adrian Wooton, from Film London, says it’s critical to his business to be in Cannes, as it’s the one event in the calendar attended by film industry representatives from the entire world. “When it’s raining and cold like this, it’s not even glamorous.” he laughed. “But to promote shooting in the UK, we just can’t not be here.”