In Deadline’s special issue being published on the occasion of the 70th Cannes Film Festival, and dedicated to those people or entities that have disrupted the normal show business order, it occurred to me it would be entirely appropriate to label the festival itself as a key annual disruptor on the industry calendar.
Each year, it seems there is some sort of significant Cannes-related moment that turns things on their head, causes controversy, or signals a new wave in the movie business. It is the nature of Cannes itself each May to stir the cinematic waters and encourage the new, the bold, the exciting, and those who just might want to use the worldwide platform to do a little disrupting of their own.
This year is no different: Cannes took the unexpected decision to allow TV into the Official Selection—with Showtime’s Twin Peaks and SundanceTV/BBC’s Top Of The Lake: China Girl screening as 70th anniversary events. It also selected two Netflix titles—Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories—for competition. The French exhibition community was up in arms, believing only theatrical releases should be allowed in. The festival has since changed its rules to accommodate this, starting in 2018 when French theatrical exhibition will be a firm requirement for any Cannes hopefuls (both Netflix entries this year will still be allowed to compete), but the seed has been sown—such a move by Cannes already promises to disrupt the order of things for French theatrical distribution, and perhaps the rest of the industry.
Because where Cannes goes first, others follow, and the festival has served as a springboard in these past 70 years to do so much that has had a significant impact in and out of theaters. As the granddaddy of all film festivals, Cannes is the one that has the ability to set the table for the entire year—including the all-important awards season.
The idea of Cannes as a possible key influencer and launch pad for Oscar success was established early on in the festival’s life—in May 1955, when Delbert Mann’s Marty took the first officially labeled Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. It proved Cannes could be a real player in this regard, as, in March the next year, Marty went on to win four Oscars including Best Picture. Cannes has sported many Best Pic nominees since, but, to this day, Marty remains the only film to win both.
Of course, France itself has used its premier film showcase to make its own mark on world cinema in a big way. A good example is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, which took the top prize in 1964 and continues to enchant the film world to this day, having famously inspired director Damien Chazelle to make his Oscar-winning 2016 musical La La Land. Then there was 1966’s quintessential French movie smash A Man And A Woman—Claude Lelouch’s love story took the Palme d’Or and went on to win two Academy Awards, still the only film in history to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and combine it with a screenplay Oscar win.
In 2012, A Man And A Woman star Jean-Louis Trintignant returned to Cannes in Michael Haneke’s Amour, alongside French film icon Emmanuelle Riva. Haneke’s film took the Palme d’Or and went on to score five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, after its emotional victory at Cannes, securing the prize for Best Foreign Language Film.
Since the ’50s, Hollywood has often used the festival to act as a send-off for their awards hopefuls, but because of the distance between this late-spring festival and the Oscar campaign season itself, it is sometimes considered risky business. In fact, this year, not a single major studio is in the official competition, leaving much of that glory to indie upstarts like A24, with four films on display, and streaming services like the aforementioned Netflix—as well as Amazon, which had five films in Cannes last year and this time around has two more in competition including Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck.
Over the years, there have been many independent movies that have exploded at Cannes. Consider some of the most controversial films the festival has gifted cinemagoers. The 2013 lesbian romance Blue Is The Warmest Color not only presented ratings problems and lots of talk for its extremely graphic sex scenes, but it also managed to swing the Palme d’Or from a jury headed by Steven Spielberg.
Cannes made this kind of explicit content acceptable the world over with that move. Of course, there have been many other movies on display in Cannes over the years that seemed intent to shock. Consider Gaspar Noé’s Love (2015), a pornographic film, presented in 3D, in which a young man ejaculates straight into the audience. It didn’t disappoint the sensation-hungry—in fact, Cannes always seems to program roughly one succès de scandale a year, such as David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), Lars von Trier’s Antichrist or John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (both 2006).
In a less edgy moment, the festival made a loud statement in favor of women behind the camera, when in 1993 it awarded Jane Campion the first (and unfortunately, still only) Palme d’Or for a female director for the film The Piano. Campion parlayed that success into an Oscar nomination for directing and an Oscar win for her screenplay, opening a dialogue about giving more women opportunities to succeed. The festival has frequently been criticized for neglecting films directed by women, but this year it will show 12—an improvement over nine in 2016 and zero in 2012.
Cannes has always been a platform for politics and personal statements as a badge of honor. Last year, the Brazilian cast and crew of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s competition entry Aquarius used the worldwide platform of a Cannes gala premiere to criticize their country’s presidential election. Each held up protest signs at the top of the Palais steps before going inside, where they did it again before debuting their movie.
Cannes has also never been shy of addressing the topic of war: the legacy of Vietnam was examined in 1978 when the jury awarded Jon Voight Best Actor for his portrayal of a Vietnam War veteran in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. The following year, Francis Ford Coppola took the Palme d’Or (in an ex-aequo tie with Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum) for Apocalypse Now, which made its first big splash at the festival.
And does cinema get any more controversial than Michael Moore, who received a record 25-minute standing ovation when he premiered his anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004? The docu went on to win the Palme d’Or—the first nonfiction film to do so since Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World in 1956—and Cannes gave it such a lift-off, it grossed well over $100 million when it opened in the U.S., becoming the most successful, disruptive doc of all time.
Such landmark movies that also served as disruptors in the film business—like 1969’s Easy Rider, from Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Robert Altman’s 1970 feature MASH, Martin Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver in 1976, and Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 game-changer Pulp Fiction, among countless others—all owe Cannes a debt of gratitude for bringing them into the world before anyone else, and changing the face of cinema in their times. The latter three all took the Palme d’Or.
What’s to come in the next 70 years of Cannes? Who knows, but you can bet it will continue to be a festival determined to shake up the status quo, and keep on disrupting cinema as we know it.