Cannes Chief Thierry Frémaux Talks Black Lives Matter, Netflix, Venice, His Own Future & Why “Winds Of Change Are In The Air”

Thierry Fremaux
Marcel Hartmann

EXCLUSIVE: Ordinarily, the Cannes Film Festival would have wrapped a few weeks ago after two weeks of glamorous red carpets, packed cinemas and deal-making. But this is anything but an ordinary year.

Instead, due to coronavirus, the world’s leading film festival only announced its Official Selection ten days ago and a Cannes virtual market will kick off next week.

We took the opportunity to speak with Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux about the historic impact of the pandemic, which has led to the festival being cancelled for the first time in more than 70 years. Frémaux talks candidly about his belief that “cinema is more alive than ever”, some of the decisions behind this year’s lineup and the stinging financial impact of Covid. He even reveals the TV series that recently brought him to tears.

Here’s our interview with the festival world’s top dog.

DEADLINE: You said recently that cinema is more alive than ever. The industry has been greatly challenged during the coronavirus pandemic and the streamers continue to gain traction. How confident are you in the position of cinema today and in coming years?

Thierry Frémaux: As time goes on, the more images we see around us. Once upon a time, we had television, and then VHS and DVDs, and now we’ve moved on to the internet and online platforms. I think that as time passes, film and cinema are really beginning to emerge as something special. Firstly, because of the historic weight they have: going to the cinema means getting out of the house, engaging in a unique experience with the films, which is something only an actual cinema can offer. Next, because of its very essence: series dominate on platforms, and it goes without saying that watching a two-hour film and a 15-hour series are quite different experiences.

Lockdown and the Covid crisis clearly had a massive impact on traditional cinema, and there will be more doom-and-gloom predictions as to its future. But I believe the opposite holds true – that in the future, its uniqueness will emerge, that innate power it has that no other art form can rival. But for this to happen, we need to take action, we need to have conviction, and we need audiences to contribute to the cause. But going to the cinema strikes me as a wonderful duty to bear! Films are like food: we need to prioritise short supply chains, pay a visit to our local cinemas and protect ‘small producers’.

DEADLINE: You’ve said that Spike Lees ‘Da 5 Bloods’ would have played at Cannes, marking Netflixs return after three years. The streamer has previously said they wouldn’t send a movie to the festival if it couldn’t play in Competition. What has happened to bridge the gap with Netflix and do you expect them to have a film at the Festival next year?

Ted Sarandos, Thierry Fremaux
Ted Sarandos and Thierry Fremaux at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Shutterstock

 TF: Yes, Da 5 Bloods was set to herald Netflix’s return to the red carpet. As a Special Screening, naturally, as Spike was the President of the Jury. We were so thrilled for him. Netflix was proud to have produced the film, and we were proud to be screening it, and that meant discussions with Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber were extremely swift. Writers’ privilege! This would also have been an opportunity for me to show Netflix that Cannes doesn’t begin and end with films that are in Competition. Our rules require that films in Competition go on to be released in cinemas. Netflix does its own thing, and I respect that. But Special Screenings with a red carpet and the Grand Théâtre Lumière can be fantastic, too. Pixar, Warner and other big Hollywood studios are used to Special Screenings. As are some French films, too.

I hope we will all meet again next year. I greatly admire Netflix’s production work, and I understand how they could disagree with our media timings. Cannes is helpless to control that. But we do have our unshakeable beliefs: films that are in Competition must be released in cinemas.

DEADLINE: Why did you decide to take two films from Steve McQueen? Is it the first time you’ve had a director with two films in Official Selection? We understand the two films would have played in Competition…

TF: Yes, this is the first time this has ever happened. If we had had the ‘Competition’ category, the films would have undoubtedly been in Competition, and that would have been the first time too. Richard Linklater brought two films to Cannes in 2006, but one was in Competition and the other for Un Certain Regard. We chose two Steve McQueen films because they were both wonderful. Had he presented us with four, all four might have been selected! This was a special year, and not having to screen films over the Festival’s 12-day period, with a clear start and end point, gave us a certain amount of freedom, which we embraced.

DEADLINE: How do these two films resonate after the death of George Floyd and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests?

TF: They are clearly relevant in light of George Floyd’s death, because the fundamental issue is the same: racism and the state violence it brings about. But Steve McQueen was also aiming to write a love letter to his community. He is a legendary filmmaker, and an incredible director to the actors he works with. These are two very powerful films.

DEADLINE: I believe there are two black filmmakers among the 56 films announced for the Festival (three including Spike Lee). Does Cannes need to do more to improve the platform it affords black filmmakers?

Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock BBC

 TF: Again, we had some incredible African films, where the directors ultimately decided to postpone until the 2021 Selection. And yet again, we can only work with the films we are sent. We only ever select films for their artistic value, and that’s why we’re now seeing a new generation emerge. What’s clear is that African film is blossoming. That’s something to shout about and foster. Here again, the future belongs to them.

I’m proud to have selected debuts from Steve McQueen, Mati Diop and Ryan Coogler, and to count Abderrahmane Sissako among Cannes’ regulars. And it’s fantastic that Spike Lee was selected as President of the Jury and is the first African-American to take up that role in a leading film festival. Film festivals need to move with the times and evolve in line with the pressing issues of their era, while safeguarding their core values: where is film at, what is its future, how are artists discussing the world around them, how does film renew as an art form, and where in the world is this happening.

DEADLINE: There are a record number of debut films this year. Which are this year’s greatest discoveries, would you say – the new filmmakers who you think could have long Cannes careers?

TF: We saw lots of extremely successful debut films, and we wanted this year’s Selection to reflect that. This leads us back to your first question: does the future of film look bright? My answer is yes, when I see the quality of the debut films that came in from around the world. I don’t want to pit directors against one another by mentioning any one in particular. But a debut film is an invitation for the future. The hard part comes afterwards, for a director’s second and third films.

Cannes’ Camera d’Or has been awarded to Jim Jarmusch, Mira Nair, Jafar Panahi, Naomi Kawase and Steve McQueen, as well as a number of filmmakers who then vanished into thin air. Let’s see what happens, and the critics can judge these young filmmakers’ potential for themselves. The takeaway lesson here is also that almost half of the directors in this category were women.

DEADLINE: Cannes has been criticised in the past for its lack of women directors. [UPDATE AFTER PUBLICATION: This year, the festival announced a record 16 female directors in Official Selection, despite the number of submissions from women filmmakers being fewer than last year. In fact, it turns out the final number is 13. According to the festival, soon after the announcement, three of the filmmakers decided to postpone their inclusion until next year]. You initially announced a record 16 female filmmakers in Official Selection. Do you think there would have been a similar number of women directors if coronavirus had not happened? Some commentators have noted that the likes of Nanni Moretti, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Paul Verhoeven and Leos Carax would likely have been at the festival, for example

Cannes women's march
Cannes women’s march Shutterstock

 TF: Yes, but there are also female directors who chose to postpone their films’ releases to 2021. We’ll see next year whether female directors are back in force again. There’s a shift happening, a movement that points to a future of films made by women. The winds of change are in the air. In the fifties, they were few and far between. Now there are a lot more of them, with many, many more still to come.

I’ve been saying it for years now, and I firmly believe in our stance, which is the same as Agnès Varda’s: we don’t make it easier for female directors. If they’re at Cannes, it’s because their films were selected for their high quality, nothing else. But we do work with associations that are campaigning for greater representation in the film industry, and that’s something that’s very important to us. Remember when Cate Blanchett and Agnès Varda walked up the steps? That was a massive event, a hugely significant symbolic gesture. The Festival de Cannes is committed to working for change.

DEADLINE: Why has Cannes changed its method for determining a film’s country of origin? I understand this year it will be determined by the filmmaker’s nationality. I suppose in the past it was the origin of the production companies…

TF: That’s what I call a well-trained eye! Yes, this year we gave a little more detail than usual because the announcement was different. Normally, we announce our Selection and then a month later, everybody – the press, critics – see the films and we’re all on equal footing. This time around, we had to give a lot of information right from the start to help the press and Cannes fans. So we gave our directors’ nationalities, as well as the films’ production countries: which isn’t always the same thing.

DEADLINE: What is the status of discussions with Venice about that festival showcasing some Cannes label movies? Will this happen? There are rumors that Venice wont take movies with the Cannes label…

Alberto Barbera Shutterstock

 TF: Venice has a strong tradition of world premieres. So, they dont want to take films already selected by Cannes. It would have been great to make an exception this year, like what we are going to do with San Sebastian which has accepted to have Cannes films in its competition. Let’s see if something will be possible with Venice. My friend Alberto Barbera is preparing his selection and well talk soon again.

DEADLINE: Do you expect U.S. studios to show their films at Venice and other fall festivals?

TF: I don’t know, but I hope for them that they do. This autumn remains full of unanswered questions. How will things pan out for travel, visas, the virus…? Venice will be important, as this will be the first festival to go ahead since Berlin. Though, we did manage to find a workaround to keep Cannes going this year, and to support our artists and usher the films into the light thanks to the 2020 Official Selection, and to support the industry, thanks to the online version of the Marché du Film.

DEADLINE: How will the cancellation of this years Festival and the coronavirus challenge make you plan differently for next years Festival? Do you anticipate a smaller pool of movies to choose from?

TF: It will all depend on the scale of worldwide health threat. But if, as we hope, the situation is under control, we’ll need to mark the occasion with a dazzling Cannes Festival, in an embodiment of reunion, celebration and joy. And yes, I think we’ll have some incredible films to look forward to, as we’ll have the 2021 films, as well as the 2020 directors who chose to postpone.

DEADLINE: How big has the financial hit of the cancellation been for the Festival de Cannes?

Cannes 2020
The scene at Cannes’ Palais in the week the festival was due to start. Daniel Cole/AP/Shutterstock

 TF: We lost around 80% of our revenue for a total deficit estimated at just under €5m. But the economic crisis has left everyone battered. The city of Cannes has taken a huge hit as a result of the Festival, events, and tourism generally being cancelled. We’ll pull together and survive, and we’ll come back stronger than ever for a truly memorable Festival next year.

DEADLINE: You have done a great deal for maintaining and boosting the position of Cannes as the worlds premier festival. How many more editions of the Festival would you like to oversee? Do you have an end date in mind? 

TF: I’m like an athlete: I don’t want to do one season too many. But I did cry at the end of The Last Dance, when Michael Jordan says he would have loved to have a run at a seventh title with the Chicago Bulls. I want to leave without any regrets, but feeling sure that the time has come, and that Cannes will always have a bright future ahead of it. During lockdown, I wrote a book about judo, which was my first love. There’s always something to be getting on with!

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