Long a bastion of artistic freedom, the Cannes Film Festival has a secret: it censors interviews with festival head Thierry Frémaux.
The festival has not only been demanding copy approval as a condition for interviews with Frémaux (something no other festival or organization has asked of Deadline), but after pledging not to make any changes to copy, it has been removing content including potentially uncomfortable answers from Frémaux relating to diversity and controversial filmmakers.
Last month, Deadline was in Paris following the festival’s lineup announcement to interview Frémaux about the selection and the festival more generally for our Cannes Disruptors magazine, which publishes Tuesday.
Following an entirely amicable and interesting on-record interview, I was belatedly told by the press team about the copy approval requirement. I was told that these conditions were adhered to by trade and French press, including Deadline in the past. I contested the practice as unethical but was told this was done primarily as a fact-checking exercise and a language check.
This turned out not to be true. Among sections that were later watered down by the press department was a response to a question about whether the festival would welcome back filmmaker Roman Polanski. Frémaux called the question “very interesting” during our chat and gave a measured, thought-provoking but also potentially problematic answer, in which he noted that the laws haven’t changed in France since Polanski won the Palme d’Or, implying that there wouldn’t be an ethical problem with the director’s attendance.
Comments made in response to a question about the lack of women filmmakers were also removed.
We decided not to run the magazine interview given that it was tainted.
We’re aware that another publication that carried out an interview in French had whole questions and answers about the lack of Black directors in the lineup removed from their copy. The answers wouldn’t have made Frémaux or Cannes look good.
“We don’t give in to anything,” the festival head told another trade last month. “The strength of Cannes is to respect firmly who we are by respecting others. We don’t give in to political correctness.”
So why are Frémaux’s views on thorny issues being watered down and excised?
Shortly after we sent over our second part of the interview, we received an angry phone call from the press office claiming that the response about controversial filmmakers had been said off the record. I explained this wasn’t true and offered to send the audio. We didn’t hear the complaint again.
Nevertheless, we were accused of pursuing “clickbait” and trashy journalism. We were also told that we had to run our interview in a Q&A format to avoid us inserting our own commentary, and it was suggested to us that the interview shouldn’t run at all and that similar interviews wouldn’t be possible next year. The reaction was strongly at odds with the easy atmosphere of our interview with Frémaux, who didn’t raise a single concern during our interaction.
No journalist should be allowing copy approval. No one in the industry should be asking for it. We dropped the ball by allowing it with Cannes in the past (L.A. editors were not aware of the deal), but we are told that in the few instances we did, no significant changes were made to copy so it was swallowed.
Why haven’t publications spoken up about the practice? We know some journalists hate it and feel diminished by it. But amid fevered competition for access, priorities can become warped. We ran the first part of our interview with Frémaux because the changes asked of us were relatively minor and because the turnaround on that story was immediate. In the race to get copy up, there was no time to ruminate and discuss the issue with other editors, which is what we did when we had more time for the second piece.
It has been put to us by a couple of European journalists that copy approval is a more common practice in France and some other parts of Europe than in the U.S. and UK. Cultures and attitudes towards the press are different in each country. However, in our interactions with French and European companies over the years, copy approval has never been a condition of an interview.
The whole episode raises ethical questions over censorship, free press and client journalism.
It also raises questions about the direction of the publicly backed festival. Amid so much concern in recent years about the lack of diversity within the Cannes lineup, for organizers to feel they have to disguise the true thoughts of their festival head is problematic. For readers to be getting watered-down, censored responses to important industry questions short-changes them and reflects badly on the festival as well as on publications.
Some years ago I exposed the discriminatory practice in Cannes of women having to wear high heels on the red-carpet. Thankfully, following an industry backlash, that is no longer an issue. The culture changed because it was time for a change. That the festival is currently imposing copy approval and censorship strikes us as another outdated practice which must end to ensure journalists are able to freely do their jobs and the industry is kept abreast of the real thoughts and attitudes of the festival’s chief film selector. Without that there can’t be proper accountability and transparency.
Seven years ago, Frémaux voiced his support for the Busan Film Festival which was being censored by local authorities in Korea.
“A great festival is a festival that is free,” said Frémaux. “Freedom of expression” is essential for ensuring greatness, he added.
The same is true of the press.