Over the past weekend, the outcomes of two high-profile media fiestas garnered heavy doses of online and TV news coverage: the win of Sweden’s ditty ‘Euphoria’ in the Eurovision Song Contest, and the triumph of Michael Haneke’s film Amour at the Cannes Film Festival, bagging its director the second Palme d’Or of his career. Yet the likelihood of audiences turning up in droves to purchase the song or watch the film is slim – both products are very much geared towards People Who Like That Sort Of Thing.
But that doesn’t stop Cannes from being the world’s pre-eminent film festival. And that is because it is about three different versions of the movie industry jostling for space, in what amounts to a giant and very peculiar business conference that takes stage management and PR acumen of the highest order to command.
In the red corner there is the high-art breed of films such as Haneke’s that have highly specialist markets and are not for everyone. These films often have a tendency to irritate or offend American film critics, who think that Cannes should be more about commerce and less about art. Previous victims of US critical savagings include Gus Van Sant’s 2003 drama Elephant, about a high-school massacre, which Variety’s Todd McCarthy called “gross and exploitative”. Then there was Lars Von Trier’s Dogville from the same year, which McCarthy (obviously not in the best mood during the May of 2003) labelled an “apocalyptic blast at American values”.
In the blue corner, we have the high-flying Hollywood players who aim to use the festival as a spotlights-and-paparazzi launchpad for their wallet-thinning summertime blockbusters. Recent notable PR drives on that front include the one for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which debuted at Cannes 2008 to a decidedly mixed reception as part of a $150m promotional push that left few viewers with the impression that it was anything like as good as Indy’s first three adventures. Two years before that, Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code boosted itself off the Cannes starting blocks and sprinted to a $750m box office haul, despite being flamed by most of the European critics who attended that year’s festival. The US approach to Cannes seems to be very much in the vein of: “Hey, we’re going to get slated – but the world’s press is going to fawn over the cast, so what the hell?”
Meanwhile, in the bizarre corner lurk the films that no critic wants to spend too much time on, because covering them would mean nothing for a film journal’s artistic credibility, or dedication to Hollywood machismo. These are the straight-to-DVD – or, as is increasingly common, straight-to-Netflix-or-Hulu – imitative schlockfests that have been scripted on the backs of matchbooks, hurled into production on schedules that make skinny jeans look spacious, and delivered to audiences who are either discriminatingly poor in taste or just stumble on the films by accident while looking for insomnia cures during late-night channel surfs in one-star hotels. Highlights in that particular bracket from this year’s festival include Ghost Shark, Dragon Wasps, Million Dollar Crocodile – and the superbly titled Dead Sushi. None of them will be remembered by the time of next year’s Cannes.
Come to think of it, none of them will be remembered by next week.
These three different strains of the film industry are all striving for a common purpose: distribution. It doesn’t matter how much money a studio pumps into making a film; if no one picks it up to shop it around cinema chains and ensure that audiences see it, there’s not much point of it existing. So whether filmmakers come from high art, Hollywood or Z-movie backgrounds, Cannes brings them all down to the same level: managers and businesspeople locked away in arid negotiation rooms tucked down the corridors of soulless hotels. In other words, once the weirdness and red-carpet glitz has settled, they’re not that much different from the rest of us.