First-timers at the Cannes Film Festival sometimes ask my advice on preparing for “the Cannes experience,” but the problem is there is no such thing. The festival, in reality, offers a range of experiences, depending on your mission and your budget. I’m a case in point: I have ventured to Cannes over the course of 20 visits, first to buy films and, later, to sell them. My tab has been picked up on separate missions by a Hollywood studio (Lorimar), a newspaper (Variety) and a television network (AMC). I have stayed at a rat trap off the Croisette and at the Hotel du Cap. I have been turned away at major events for lack of appropriate credentials, but have also walked the red carpet with the winners — I was one. And I can testify that each experience was, in its own way, both punishing and rewarding. But impossible to prepare for.
I have enjoyed doing TV interviews, and wandering through town with the likes of Roman Polanski and Michael Moore. I have witnessed the triumph of a Soderbergh or a Tarantino, but I have also watched Arnold Schwarzenegger bomb, Bob Evans struggle to raise backing for The Cotton Club and Golan-Globus hustle projects when stars and filmmakers did a disappearing act. I delighted in the political subtext of the films and protests of the ’70s, which generated much more passion than the fervid dealmaking of the present Cannes.
But I never quite mastered the tricks and techniques of the true Cannes old-timers. How do they carouse until 3 AM and still watch three films the next day? How did they become so deft at congratulating filmmakers when they truly hated their films? When arriving at parties, how do they instinctively navigate to that “secret room” where the stars and celebrities hide out rather than mixing with the riff-raff? How do they manage to find a restaurant that serves dinner in 90 minutes rather than three hours? And when a screening goes badly, how do they manage to vanish mid-film without anyone noticing?
The most important insight about navigating Cannes is to understand that it’s all counter-intuitive. The Hotel du Cap sounds inviting, but it’s too far from the action; besides, it’s more fun hanging with young filmmakers downtown than watching stars confer with their agents and publicists. In the same vein, if you’re eager to chat with a star, the best setting is at a bar at 2 AM, and the worst is on the red carpet. Everyone on the red carpet is grumpy because the line moves too slowly, French security is too nasty and no one particularly wants to wait to shake the moist hand of the festival director anyway.
I truly envy the ability of festival-goers to admire the films they see — virtually all the films. The truly hard-core fans are always on their feet applauding. I try to be appreciative as well, but I don’t really like watching movies in my tuxedo. And I resist the mandatory adulation of star filmmakers; especially those desperately past their prime.
Have I ever gotten downright excited at Cannes? Of course. I was stirred when Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or in ’94, or Apocalypse Now in ’76. I yawned when The Tree Of Life won in 2011 or The White Ribbon in 2009. But there’s nothing wrong with a good yawn on the Croisette. In fact, it’s arguably the healthiest (and probably the only) exercise you will get.