The last time longtime AIDS activist Sharon Stone showed up for an amfAR Cannes gala was in 2014. That year, the actress famously feuded with Harvey Weinstein and never returned. With Weinstein vanquished thanks to dozens of sexual harassment and abuse allegations, Stone agreed to serve as a chair for this year’s incarnation, which marks the Foundation for AIDS Research’s 25th anniversary. Stone’s co-chair duties would have seen her front and center throughout the night as an auctioneer like she was at the 2014 event, where she helped raise a record $35 million. But with four weeks to go before the May 17 event at the Hotel du Cap in Cap d’Antibes, Stone pulled out after invitations featuring her name already had gone out. Her rep gave THR only a brief explanation: “Sharon will not be attending Cannes now. She is going to work on a new project.”
Stone’s cold feet could be a troubling sign for the nonprofit’s Cannes gala — normally the crown jewel of the festival party circuit — which is reeling in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. The unfortunate reality facing amfAR is that the disgraced mogul had become the most visible and important force behind the annual black-tie affair, corralling stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Jessica Chastain and summoning the glamour, with wife Georgina Chapman — the fashion designer who dressed many of the attending high-wattage celebrities — at his side. But in addition to the damage wrought by his high-profile sexual misdeeds, a more behind-the-scenes scandal has roiled amfAR for months: A highly suspect deal struck by Weinstein allegedly allowed the film producer to profit from fundraising proceeds, including those generated by the Cannes gala, and led to the Feb. 8 ouster of the group’s chairman, shoe designer Kenneth Cole.
The question now remains: Can the star-studded event, which has raised more than $210 million for amfAR’s programs and propelled the group’s efforts into the international media spotlight, recover from its Weinstein connection? With amfAR scrambling to distance itself from a two-pronged scandal, this year’s gala, the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year, will pose a critical test for its viability moving forward.
AmfAR CEO Kevin Frost insists that the benefit, which raised about $20 million last year, won’t take a hit and that high-profile participation is tracking with years past. “I used to hear people say things like, ‘The Cannes Film Festival was Harvey’s festival,'” Frost tells THR. “And I think that’s largely a reflection of the fact that he was so good at manipulating the media around the films he wanted to promote. But I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised at what will continue to be the most glamorous, most-sought-after ticket of the entire festival. Without him.”
Organizers have locked in Pharrell Williams to perform and gala regular Heidi Klum and actress Milla Jovovich to serve on the all-female group of chairs this year. As of press time, another unnamed A-list musician had given a tentative yes to perform. But the sketchy Weinstein deal involving Cole and the American Repertory Theater has left many regulars feeling skeptical. Under the deal, Weinstein was able to funnel donations from the 2015 amfAR Cannes event to the Boston-based theater that workshopped the producer’s Broadway-bound play Finding Neverland. In total, A.R.T. reimbursed Weinstein nearly all of the $2 million cost of workshopping the play.
In November, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan launched an investigation into the transaction and subpoenaed financial records and emails from amfAR related to the 2015 Cannes gala, which drew the likes of Marion Cotillard, Jake Gyllenhaal and Kendall Jenner. Three months later, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened a review of amfAR’s governance and insisted on the ouster of Cole, who acquiesced to Weinstein’s demands on the A.R.T. deal over objections from much of the amfAR board.
“The event itself got so far from the organization’s mission, and with everything that happened with Harvey and Kenneth, it feels like an embarrassment or error of judgment to go,” says one past attendee who will skip this year’s edition despite being in Cannes for the festival. “I don’t think the gala can, or should, ever be the same.”
Privately, some regulars say they are taking a wait-and-see approach, given that criminal charges could result from the federal investigation, further damaging the amfAR brand. CEO Frost says he has not been kept abreast of the federal probe.
“We’re not being told anything because we were just a witness,” explains Frost. “Honestly, I have no clue. It’s not like they call up and say, ‘Here’s where we are.’ And I have no sense of a timeline. Zero.”
Compounding amfAR’s headaches is that many of the benefit’s attendees have been accused of sexual misdeeds, from Weinstein to Brett Ratner to Dustin Hoffman. Despite the fact that this year’s theme, “And Woman Created All,” offers a nod to female empowerment, the gala may appear out of step with prevailing sensibilities in the #MeToo era. In the past, the Hotel du Cap shindig provided an overt opportunity for Europe’s jet set, Russian oligarchs and Hollywood producers to cavort with young models under the auspice of fundraising. Many of Weinstein’s alleged assaults took place in Cannes. Now that Time’s Up’s talking points dominate the conversation, will the big spenders like Weinstein pal Len Blavatnik — who plunked down $15 million for a Damien Hirst sculpture at the 2014 gala — move on to less scrutinized events?
For years, Bold Films backer Michel Litvak, a Belgian oil industrialist, has underwritten the event, and Frost says the billionaire is on board again this year despite rumors that he, too, was bolting (Litvak has significantly pulled out of his film financing activities in recent months). Chopard will join Litvak as a presenting sponsor, while Pernod Ricard and Delta are the signature sponsors. But amfAR wouldn’t say how well tables are selling this year versus last year at the same time. (THR has learned that at least one high-ranking U.S. executive was being urged by colleagues to steer clear this year.)
One thing playing in amfAR’s favor is that when it comes to glitz, its gala might be the only show in town this year thanks to the fest’s decidedly non-Holly-wood lineup. Outside of the Solo: A Star Wars Story world premiere, there will be little in the way of major movie star appeal during the festival run. But that could also work against the gala — if the stars aren’t already on hand, there may be little incentive to make a special trip to the Riviera for an event mired in controversy.
Ultimately, the removal of Weinstein from the equation may make the evening more welcoming. While spending lavishly on himself, the mogul sparred with Stone over her travel expenditures, according to sources. Alec Baldwin pulled out of an onstage appearance in 2012 because of a feud with Weinstein. The producer’s role at last year’s event was significantly diminished compared to years past, reflecting the internal amfAR turmoil — but that didn’t translate into Weinstein foes returning to the fold.
Still, some gala regulars say concerns are overblown and that not only will amfAR’s Cannes event survive, but it will thrive in the post-Weinstein era.
“My gut tells me that amfAR probably will come out bigger and better than they were,” says producer Pascal Borno, president of Conquistador Entertainment, who will attend this year for the sixth time. “It’s almost like people want to show their support despite the fact that this has been tainted by the association of Harvey and what’s happened in this last year.” There will still be beautiful people dressed elegantly, insists Borno. And the Hotel du Cap setting can’t be matched: “It’s going to be business as usual.”
This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.