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

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Cannes is a beautiful city on the southern coast of France. It’s also home to one of the biggest film festivals in the world.

Originally called the International Film Festival, the Festival de Cannes has shared its name with the city it helped make famous since 2002. Every year, the exclusive event hosts screenings for filmmakers, actors, critics, and industry insiders. Top honors at the festival, the Palme d’Or, are given out by a special jury of internationally recognized filmmakers and critics. And the Film du Marché, an associated film market that was started in conjunction with the festival, is the biggest film industry event every year.

Although the festival is not open to the public, the city is still a destination for cinéphiles around the world. Parallel screenings that shadow the main festival, known as sidebars, have tickets available for purchase. For those doing business, attending the festival is a must each year. And for filmmakers, artists, and actors, the event is a place to discover new talent and the latest trends. Cannes is a place to come and experience the entirety of the film world: film school students, art house cinema, veteran filmmakers, and industry powerhouses.

The festival can also conjure images of celebrities walking the red carpet and beaches with flocks of paparazzi nearby. Controversy is woven deeply into the mythos of the festival. But it isn’t limited to celebrity news. The awards selection itself is often hotly debated. In 2013, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” won the Palme d’Or and generated controversy over its explicit depictions of lesbian sex by a male director. Other awards are more unanimously welcomed. Last year, the South Korean film “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or and went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Due to the threat of COVID-19, Cannes has indefinitely postponed their 73rd iteration in 2020. But the event usually takes place in May at the Palais des Festivals. This guide covers all the basic info for the prestigious festival—which we can confidently predict will return after the pandemic, remaining a film world staple for many years to come. Discover the history of the event, its prestigious awards, and how to submit your project for next year, all below.

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When did the Cannes Film Festival start?

The International Film Festival was conceived as a rebuke to the meddling of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. At the Venice Film Festival in 1938, the Axis leaders forced a change in the official results, forcing propaganda films to be declared the winner. Suitably outraged, French diplomat Philippe Erlanger put into motion a plan for a festival free of political power. In September of 1939, this new festival was set to debut. However, Germany’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1 began World War II, forcing the festival to be cancelled. Another iteration of the event would not be held until 1946 after the defeat of Axis powers, when Erlanger again pushed for the event at Cannes. Despite the devastations of the war, money for the effort was raised through public subscription.

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. In 1959, the festival’s organizer André Malraux introduced the Marché du Film, a film market that has become the biggest worldwide film event. The oldest sidebar for the festival, Semaine de la Critique, was introduced in 1961. After the events of May 1968 cancelled Cannes, another important sidebar was added: The Directors’ Fortnight.

Throughout these changes, scandal continued to both burnish and bolster the festival’s reputation. Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” now hailed as a classic, was considered vulgar when it won in 1960. Just last year, the festival awarded Alain Delon an honorary Palme d’Or for his career as an actor. Former misogynistic, homophobic, and far-right political remarks by the actor stirred up complaints about his honor. Current festival head Thierry Fremaux responded evasively to a circulating petition by saying, “we are not going to give Alain Delon the Nobel Peace Prize. We’re giving him a Palme d’Or for his career as an actor.” Even so, Cannes has worked to update its image for the 21st century. Recently, it made its selection process more transparent and pledged to improve its gender representation.

What is the purpose of Cannes?

Cannes was originally conceived as competition to the Venice film festival, the only other international film festival at the time. But the first few years were rocky. In 1939, the first festival was cancelled when WWII started. Although returning in 1946, the festival wasn’t held in 1948 ot 1949 due to budgetary problems. Still, the idea persisted to create an apolitical space where art ruled. Jean Cocteau, head of the jury three different times, said “the Festival is an apolitical no-man's-land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could contact each other directly and speak the same language.”

Throughout the rocky first 15 years, a robust identity solidified. 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. The selection of the jurors is a major announcement every year, exemplifying the festival’s original vision of artistic recognition, with major filmmakers honoring new films, especially from emerging voices. Frémaux sums it up by saying, “the 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.”

At the same time, Cannes is a commercial event and one of the biggest film fests in the world. In this regard, the introduction of the Film du Marché in 1959 was a game-changer. Producer Karen Espenant told No Film School, “80% of the business in the film industry is done...at this particular market [the Film March].”

The film festival remains an exclusive industry event. Having a project screened as part of Cannes, either in the official selection or as part of one of the sidebars, is a career milestone. Likewise, attending the market is an important step. “When people come here, they're serious about doing business,” Espenant added. “They’re serious about their craft. It’s not like people come here and just show up. By the time you get here, you mean business.”

Who selects the films that screen at Cannes?

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.

For 2019 and this year, Cannes revealed their selection committee to the public for the first time. The nine-person panel for 2020 included five women, including three who also served from last year’s committee. This was a significant milestone for the festival in fulfilling its pledge to make strides in gender parity.

The industry leaders on this year’s committee were a range of French cinema professionals, including those involved in the filmmaking process, critics, programmers for other festivals, and more. For instance, Guillemette Odicino is a journalist, critic, and head of the cinema department at Télérama, and also does film programming at CANAL+ and more. “There’s something organic in a selection of 50 films that reflect the entirety of cinema,” festival director Fremaux told Variety in 2016. In terms of criteria, he says that “it’s important...to be a platform where we show personal auteurs who have their own touch, who experiment and play with the form of cinema, but it’s also important to show that classic forms matter as well.”

How can I submit a film at Cannes?

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Cannes Film Festival has extended their deadline for 2020 for some categories until possibly the end of May. Guidelines exist for four major categories, but all films must fill out an online entry form, and either upload (for shorts) or send (for features) a copy of the film.

Official selections for the main competition, for Un Certain Regard, and for out of competition screenings, must also meet the following conditions: films must have been produced within 12 months of the festival, and have not been shown on the Internet, released on DVD, or at any international motion picture event, including in noncompetitive sections. Feature films invited into the competition must be released theatrically in France. Submission fees range by format, from 50 to 350 euros. Formats range from Blu-Ray/DVD to HDCAM and Beta. All films must either be in English or French, or have English or French subtitles. If selected, films for screening must be provided in a Digital Cinema Package, JPG 2000 file, or a 35mm print.

Short films have the same requirements, except their films must be uploaded and less than 15 minutes, and the requirement for a French theatrical release does not apply. For films between 15 minutes and 60 minutes (the minimum requirement for a feature), applicants are directed to the Short Film Corner.

Cinéfondation has its own requirements: 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.

The festival also screens classic films out of competition that celebrate the history of cinema. Rights holders and the like can see submission criteria here. The two “official” sidebars of the festival, the Directors’ Fortnight and International Critics Week, have similar criteria for submissions to the official feature selections for Cannes. Some criteria vary though, such as length and theatrical release requirements. Keep in mind that International Critics Week only screens first or second films from a director. Check the criteria at the links above for a complete picture.

What awards does Cannes present?

Cannes is one of the world’s major film events. Every year, the announcement of the top prize is a major event, with past winners routinely ranked. Originally, the highest honor of the festival was called the Grand Prix. The Palme d’Or was introduced in 1955 and gets its name and design from the tree on the City of Cannes’ coat of arms. The award was suspended between 1964 to 1975 due to copyright issues, but the Palme has been the major award for the festival ever since its reintroduction. Originally there was only one prize at Cannes, but other prizes have been added since, with the Grand Prix considered second place. The long-running Jury Prize remains prestigious as well. The major awards continue to be controversial; sometimes boos accompany their announcement at the festival.

Cannes separates out its official selections into categories. Only feature films in the main competition are eligible for the Palme d’Or, Grand Prix, and the Jury Prize. There are also awards for best short, as well as acting, directing, and screenplay awards for the main competition. Introduced in 1978, the Un Certain Regard section is a parallel competition that emphasizes non-traditional stories. The title can be translated as: “from a different angle.” A monied Grand Prix was added to this section 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. Three prizes were given out from the organization in 2019, with a tie for third place.

Each year, the Cannes Film Festival board of directors chooses a different jury from a wide range of international artists. In 2020, American filmmaker Spike Lee was announced as the jury president, the first person from the Africa diaspora to hold the position; the event was suspended before the full jury was announced. In 2019, the jury president was Mexican writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu. You can see the full list of last year’s jurors here.

But those are just the awards given by the official juries. The famous sidebars, The Directors’ Fortnight and International Critics Week (Semaine de la Critique), give out their own awards. Both have different criteria for selection, showcasing works from emerging directors and arthouse cinema. And the winners of these awards are just as hotly discussed and debated.

Receiving an award at Cannes is a major breakthrough for filmmakers. Lee discussed the festival’s impact on his career to IndieWire: “You could easily say Cannes changed the trajectory of who I became in world cinema...start[ing] way back in 1986—my first feature film ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ which won the Prix de la Jeunesse in the Directors’ Fortnight.” Since then, the writer-director has had many of his films debut in the official selection, with “BlacKkKlansman” winning the Grand Prix in 2018.

What are the Cannes award categories?

The Cannes Festival was suspended for 2020 before the official selection was announced. For 2019, the official award categories, not including special mentions and honorary Palmes, were as follows:

Palme d’Or — The Golden Palme
Grand Prix — Grand Prize of the Festival
Prix du Jury — Jury Prize
Palme d’Or du court métrage — Best Short Film
Short Film Special Distinction
Prix d’interprétation féminine — Best Actress
Prix d’interprétation masculine — Best Actor
Prix de la mise en scène — Best Director
Prix du scénario — Best Screenplay
Prix Un Certain Regard
Jury Prize for un Certain Regard
Prize for Best Performance for Un Certain Regard
Directing Prize for Un Certain Regard
Jury’s “Coup de Coeur” (Ex-Aequo) for Un Certain Regard
Un Certain Regard Jury’s Special Mention
Special Jury Prizes
Cinéfondation — three awards
The Caméra d’Or — recognizes the debut work from a director screening in the official selection, The Director’s Fortnight, and the International Critics’ Week.

Plus, there are several awards that are given independently, including at the famous sidebars. In 2019, the Directors’ Fortnight gave out three awards: Europa Cinemas Label, the SACD Prize, and the Illy Short Film award. International Critics’ Week hands out three prizes, selected by an international jury each year. The FIPRESCI Committee gives out a prize for the best first or second feature from a director screening in competition or at the Directors’ Fortnight. And, amazingly enough, that is just a partial list of the numerous third-party awards associated with the Cannes festival.

How often have Cannes winners and premieres gone on to earn other major awards?

Cannes is one of the most highly regarded international film festivals, representing cinema from all over the world. The Palme d’Or and the Grand Prix are major awards. But if you are thinking of Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA awards, success at Cannes is not necessarily a direct indicator. The past 10 years have seen three American-produced films receive the festival’s Palme d’Or or Grand Prix awards. “The Tree of Life” won the Palme d’Or in 2011 but did not win any Oscars, and wasn’t nominated at the Golden Globes. Lee’s Grand Prix winner “BlacKkKlansman” claimed an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. “Inside Llewyn Davis” won the Grand Prix in 2013, but received nominations rather than wins at major award ceremonies.

However, the festival has a long relationship with promoting different facets of Hollywood cinema. In the 1970s, the awards were a hotbed for American independent directors: “Apocalypse Now,” “Taxi Driver,” “MASH,” “The Conversation,” and “Scarecrow” all won the Palme d’Or and subsequent honors. Indie films of the ’90s also made a great showing at the festival: “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Barton Fink,” and “Wild at Heart” were all Palme d’Or winners as well. Many of these films received Academy Award, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations, with some big wins as well, notably for “Apocalypse Now.” Nor was Cannes only decorating American films during this era. In 1993, the Palme d’Or was split between two films: Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” from New Zealand was the first film with a female director to win the top prize, while Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” was the first Chinese film to win.

Last year, the festival’s jury unanimously awarded the Palme d’Or to “Parasite.” The first Korean film to claim the honor also won best picture, original screenplay, director, and international film at the 92nd Academy Awards. It is the first and only film in a language other than English to win top honors at the Oscars. Still, winning Cannes remains more than enough for most. Before winning at the Oscars, “Parasite” writer-director Bong Joon-ho described the Academy as “very local.” Ouch!

When and where does the Cannes Film Festival happen?

The festival’s recognizable name comes directly from its location. The event takes place every year in the French city of Cannes. When the International Film Festival was first conceived in 1938, several cities were in the running to host the event. After Biarritz was selected, Cannes counter-offered with greater funding, and won as a result. The event officially changed its name to the Cannes Festival in 2002. 

Cannes has historically been held in the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, a convention center built expressly for the festival. The first Palais des Festivals was built in 1949. A second, bigger building was needed due to the success of the event; the festival has run its official programming there since 1983. Since 1951, the Cannes Film Festival has been held each spring for 12 days. It was moved from its original September schedule so it would not compete with the Venice Film Festival.

Several events run in tandem with the main festival, but at separate locations. The Directors’ Fortnight was introduced in 1969 after the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival due to the civil unrest of May 1968. The sidebar takes place at the Theatre Croisette in the JW Marriott, plus plenty of other venues in the city of Cannes. The International Critics’ Week was started in 1962 and is the oldest parallel section of the festival. It presents 10 feature films and 10 short films every year, selected by members of the French Union of Film Critics. Nowadays, most of the screenings take place in the city at the Espace Miramar—near the water.

How can I attend?

COVID-19 has shuttered most large public events around the world for 2020. The 73rd annual Cannes Film Festival has suspended its original May schedule in response to a French government edict banning festivals in France until at least mid-July. After announcing a delay to the 2020 festival in March, Cannes announced in April that it could no longer present this year’s programming in “its original form.” Statements from Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week confirmed that they had also cancelled their parallel sidebars for the 2020 edition. Still, Cannes has said that it will “explore all contingencies” in regards to making “Cannes 2020 real, in one way or another.”

Although festival director Frémaux ruled out a “virtual” festival, Cannes is participating with other large film festivals to create “We Are One” for YouTube. The event is a 10-day streaming showcase that will feature content from 20 film festivals, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, Tribeca, and more. Although programming details are not available at this time, the event will include films, documentaries, music, comedy, and conversations. “We Are One” will stream on YouTube starting on May 29, and will be free to viewers. Donations to the WHO’s COVID-19 solidarity response fund are encouraged.

Even in a typical year, most folks can’t attend the official selections for the film festival. Cannes restricts access to its official venues, with most of its offerings not open to the general public. Only certain groups can apply for “accreditation,” which in festival parlance means access to the official offerings. These are separated into several categories. For example, film professionals can apply for access to events at all the festival venues. Employees of film companies can apply to attend the Marché du Film, a film market that will take place online this year in June. Other tracks exist for industry professionals, including a Producers Network, industry workshops, and a short film corner.

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.

Although the sidebars are always open to the public, they have all been cancelled for 2020. In the past, there has been no advance booking for the Directors’ Fortnight. All ticketing is done on a first-come, first-served basis. They’ve sold tickets at the counters on the Malmaison esplanade the week of the screenings. Single tickets can be purchased, as well as subscription bundles and passes. Likewise, the International Critics’ Week have made tickets available for free to the public.

Cannes also screens films at night underneath the stars at the Cinéma de la Plage. These screenings are also open to the public, and are usually classic films. For example, François Truffaut’s “Les Quatre Cents Coups” screened in 2019. Tickets are available for these films on a first-come, first-served basis.

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

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