There’s more to Cannes than glitz

With many of the biggest names in the world of film descending on Cannes to be photographed on the red carpet at the festival screenings and to press the flesh at the subsequent parties, you could be excused for thinking the annual gathering every May is more about style than substance.

But with only a couple of dozen films in the official selection and a similar number in three contemporaneous side-bars – Un Certain Regard, the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week – the bulk of the thousands of films being represented here are in a market that’s every bit as competitive as the various competitions – if not more.

Billboards for Sex Tape and The Expendables 3 adorn the facade of the Carlton

Everything is represented in one way or another along the Croisette. Most conspicuous are the biggest studios, which have been trying to sell their latest blockbusters to as many territories across the world as they can; Sony bought the most prominent billboard, atop the Carlton Hotel, to promote its upcoming comedy Sex Tape, while Lionsgate took over the front of the nearby Majestic hotel to raise the profile of the third of its Hunger Games films and the new Transformers film and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent also feature prominently among the banners. But the most extravagant publicity stunt of the market saw the team behind The Expendables 3 send the entire above-the-line cast, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, around the streets of Cannes in tanks.

Moviehouse Entertainment boss Gary Phillips “laughed his head off” at Convenience

But while the big money is being spent on expensive hotel suites and the associated billboards and publicity stunts, the majority of the films are being sold by sales agents from their stalls on the market, many of whom screen their films to potential distributors in the many cinemas within the main market building and beyond. One of the British sales companies, in its regular stand overlooking the beach, is Moviehouse Entertainment, which has been selling a biopic of JK Rowling, starring Without A Trace’s Poppy Montgomery as the eponymous Harry Potter writer. But its managing director Gary Phillips is more proud of a couple of British films whose posters adorn his walls. Hackney’s Finest is a low budget feature made by director Chris Bouchard, who’s received more than 11 million Youtube views for a short he made. But he’s even more excited about Convenience, a comedy about a pair of inept armed robbers. “My partner and I laughed our heads off when we saw it,” he beams. This is rare, he acknowledges; he’s always getting invited to screenings by producers but the “good stuff gets sucked up early,” so he attends screenings hoping that other buyers are equally jaded and might have missed it. But Convenience also came with good write-ups from Raindance, he enthuses.

In addition to the festival screening films and the market selling them, some of the companies at the market are also open to buying the films they’ll be selling in the year ahead. I found myself dipping my toe into this end of the market, representing a Greek-British co-production documentary feature by journalist Theopi Skarlatos; Love in the Time of Crisis examines how the Greek financial crash affected love and relationships in the country. Hours of flicking through the market literature and pounding the stalls, trying to find the most appropriate companies, a range of knock-backs and enthusiastic calls for more information or a trailer to watch, and now it’s a case of letting the sales agents digest the material they have and follow up once the business of Cannes has died down.

Many aspiring producers are at an even earlier stage, using Cannes to try to raise financing for a script, which is about as hard as it gets, unless names and faces are already attached, or the reputation of the director is sufficiently impressive.

But one of the rarest uses of Cannes, rather than buying, selling or exhibiting films, is making them. British director Nick Livesey was using this year’s Palme Dog awards – for the best performance by a dog at Cannes – as a backdrop for his “quintessentially English comedy,” in which a group of British film makers find themselves in Cannes.

While at the big budget end of the business, screenings are accompanied by floor-length gowns, tuxedos, press conferences and parties, for most of those attending Cannes, it’s a week and a half of hard grafting in weather than alternates between boiling sunshine and heavy downpours.

With the market over for another year, some of the higher profile films – including those that have got a push from involvement in the official competitions at the festival – can already boast sales deals. But for most of those involved in the market, it will be a while before it can be declared a success or a failure. “I’ll know in a month if I’ve had a good market,” Phillips tells me, hoping distributors around the world are also laughing their heads off at Convenience.