I have to confess that as a Cannes Film Festival veteran, and a journalist who attends nearly all the competition screenings, I was hoping this day would come.
I’m talking, of course, about the hand-slapping move that the Cannes Film Festival has pulled for its 2018 edition. The culprits reaching for the cookie jar, in the mind of festival director Thierry Frémaux, are the many journalists and critics from around the world who travel to the Côte d’Azur each May in the hopes of being the first to have their say on the movies in Frémaux’s selection.
It’s how things have always been: 8:30AM morning screenings the day of their splashy red carpet premiere in the evening. Or perhaps even the night before, since Cannes always does a double world premiere feature, with press screenings split up in order to accommodate the volume of features and festgoers.
But, as Frémaux says, by the time the filmmakers make their way up those fabled steps in front of the Palais, the fate of their films may already have been sealed. Critics have not only seen the film, they’ve also tweeted it, reviewed it, and, in some cases, even booed it, starting a stream of negative headlines and headaches for festival organizers. A far cry from the “very pleasant festival” they often promise in emails.
This was the case for The Sea of Trees in 2015, which the world’s press had declared dead-on-arrival off the back of its morning press screening. At the official premiere later that evening, there were no boos at all. Instead, the film was greeted by applause and the usual ovation afforded directors (in this case former Palme d’Or winner Gus Van Sant). But it didn’t matter to anyone outside the Palais that night. The die had already been cast.
I’d been at that morning press screening, in which the boos were reported to be deafening. There were boos, mostly from one particular corner of the theater, and I found them annoying; I liked the film (sue me) and thought it was playing nicely until some anonymous critics decided to poison the well.
The mood at the premiere after-party that evening was almost funereal. Van Sant didn’t stay long, and Frémaux was frustrated. With the logistics and money it takes studios and distributors to bring their releases to the festival, why would they take the risk of those movies being booed by members of the press?
That entire incident seemed particularly unfair, and I wrote about it at the time, criticizing Cannes for a press-first policy that might have made sense in the era of long print lead times, but ultimately resulted in these kind of disappointments in the internet era.
The Sea of Trees is far from the only victim. When Xavier Dolan came to the festival in 2016 with It’s Only the End of the World, the critical response was brutal, and bad headlines hit the press before the red carpet premiere. I actually didn’t disagree with the consensus, but the film went on to win the Grand Prix even as its director was bruised by his film’s initial ill-treatment. “The culture of trolling, bullying and unwanted hatred shouldn’t be an inextricable part of the cinematic or analytical adventure,” he later said.
His latest film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, was accepted by Cannes this year. He told our sister site Indiewire that he wanted to go to the festival, but that his film wouldn’t be ready. Perhaps, but why take the chance? His is just another example of what seems to be motivating the Cannes decision to put its filmmakers ahead of the press.
Now, the press will see a film next door at the smaller Salle Debussy, at the same time as its gala premiere. For the later premiere of the night, that press screening will happen the following morning. This, in essence, will necessarily downgrade the importance and significance of Cannes critics’ reviews, affording the invited premiere audience as much of a chance to have their say on social media.
But I’m on board. I found it embarrassing to go to those screenings and watch these films get mangled before having a fair shot at glory. I have been to many black tie premieres in Cannes as well, and never once did I hear any booing. No one wants to do that with the cast and filmmakers present. Cannes is an amazing place to launch a film, and certainly a special moment for anyone whose film is accepted. Why ruin the party?
As Frémaux says, “It’s not about the press, it’s about the gala screenings.” This is a move that might restore some luster to Cannes, as well as the trust of the invited filmmakers. As for my fellow critics, they can boohoo all they want.