Everything Filmmakers + Cinephiles Need to Know About the Cannes Film Festival

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Nestled on the Côte d'Azur of southern France, the beautiful city of Cannes hosts one of the most prestigious and glamorous film festivals in the world. Although the main festival events are invite-only, Cannes is a mecca for cinema lovers from across the globe every year, buzzing with the electric energy of filmmakers, actors, industry professionals, and fans alike. This comprehensive guide takes you behind the scenes of the iconic Cannes Film Festival, covering its fascinating history, most coveted awards, entry requirements, and everything you need to know to experience the epitome of the cinematic world.

What is Cannes film festival?

History: The Cannes Film Festival was born out of defiance against the Axis powers during World War II. In 1938, at the Venice Film Festival, Hitler and Mussolini infamously rigged the results to favor propaganda films, outraging the international film community. Determined to establish an apolitical festival free from such interference, French diplomat Philippe Erlanger spearheaded the creation of a new festival in the idyllic coastal town of Cannes. In the aftermath of the war’s devastation, the festival—originally called the International Film Festival—became a testament to the enduring power of art. 

Throughout its early years, the festival weathered both the Cold War and Hollywood scandal. Nevertheless, the international stature of the festival grew. Fest producers built the Palais des Festival in 1951, a permanent structure made expressly to house the festival’s activities. The artistic element of the festival was boosted by the introduction of prizes. These awards were given under increasingly structured rules through the ’50s, until the introduction of the Palme d’Or in 1955. 

In 1959, the Marché du Film was launched, quickly becoming the largest and most influential film market in the world. The festival continued to expand its reach with the addition of influential sidebars like the Semaine de la Critique in 1961 and The Directors’ Fortnight in 1969, showcasing the works of emerging and avant-garde filmmakers.

The Un Certain Regard section—a parallel competition that emphasizes non-traditional stories—was introduced in 1978, with a monied Grand Prix added to in 1998. Winners receive this grant to help with international distribution. Cinéfondation, the separate foundation operating within the Cannes festival supporting emerging filmmakers, was started in 1998. Each year the foundation shows short and medium works from film schools around the world. 

Jury: Every year, Cannes assembles a selection committee to review all submissions. From the nearly 2,000 films submitted every year, the committee picks about 50 feature films and 10 short films to be part of the official selection. Screenings are separated by categories, which include the main juried competition, the Cinefondation selections, films competing in the Un Certain Regard category, and films shown out of competition.

Awards: The festival's major awards include:

  • Palme d'Or (Golden Palm): Best feature film of the official competition.
  • Grand Prix: Best feature film that demonstrates originality and the spirit of inquiry. 
  • Jury Prize: Chosen by the jury to a featured film or for an exceptional performance.
  • Best Actor: Best performance by a male actor.
  • Best Actress: Best performance by a female actor.
  • Best Director: Best director of a film in competition.
  • Best Screenplay: Best original or adapted screenplay.
  • Caméra d'Or: Best first film by a new director across all sections.
  • Palme d'Or du Court Métrage: Best short film.
  • Prix Un Certain Regard: Best films that emphasize non-traditional stories.

But those are just the awards given by the official juries; the famous sidebars give out their own awards for works from emerging directors and arthouse cinema. 

Relation to other awards: While success at Cannes does not guarantee subsequent major awards like the Oscars, Golden Globes, or BAFTAs, the festival has long been a springboard for international recognition and acclaim. Landmark films like “Apocalypse Now,” “Taxi Driver,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Piano” have all won the Palme d'Or before going on to receive numerous accolades.

In 2019, the South Korean masterpiece “Parasite” made history as the first Korean film to win the Palme d'Or, foreshadowing its groundbreaking success at the Academy Awards, where it became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture.

How to submit to Cannes Film Festival

Guidelines exist for four major categories, but all films must fill out an online entry form and upload or send a copy of the film. 

  • Un Certain Regard: Feature films must be produced within 12 months of the festival, unreleased at any international event, and, for the Main Competition, slated for theatrical release in France.
  • Short films: Films of less than 15 minutes follow similar rules but are exempt from the French theatrical release requirement.
  • Cinéfondation: For this category, the film must have been directed by a student as part of their film school curriculum, have been produced within 18 months of the festival, and be between 35 and 60 minutes. The film cannot have been shown at an international film festival, but it can have screened in a festival in its country of origin. This category is from film school students only; it does not accept films from high school or other students. Documentaries are not accepted.
  • Classic: The festival also screens classic films out of competition that celebrate the history of cinema. 

When and where is Cannes Film Festival?

The 2024 Cannes Film Festival will take place from May 14–25 in the stunning city that lends it its name.

Several events run in tandem with the main festival, but at separate locations. The Directors’ Fortnight takes place at the Theatre Croisette in the JW Marriott, plus plenty of other venues in the city of Cannes. The International Critics’ Week mostly takes place in the city at the Espace Miramar.

How to go to Cannes Film Festival

While access to the official selections is restricted, movie enthusiasts can still experience the festival's magic through public screenings at the Cinéma de la Plage and by exploring the vibrant sidebars like the Directors' Fortnight and International Critics' Week.

For film professionals, industry workshops, networking events, and the bustling Marché du Film offer unparalleled opportunities to connect and immerse oneself in the beating heart of the cinema world.

If you happen to actually live in Cannes, the festival allows residents to apply for Cinéphiles accreditation. This category provides access to official selections and sidebars at select venues, as well as some screenings in the Palais. Cinéphile organizations and education groups can apply for this accreditation as well.

For more on all things Cannes, visit its official website.

To go behind the industry’s biggest film festivals, click here!

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