Cannes: 4 Steps to Acing the World's Strictest Red Carpet

Insiders and power publicists spill the secrets they share with the stars for navigating the carpet, where even A-listers know that the film is king.

This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In 2009, when Quentin Tarantino walked the red carpet in front of the Palais' Grand Theatre Lumiere for Inglourious Basterds, the theme song from Pulp Fiction suddenly came on over the loudspeaker -- and the director broke into a frantic dance, twisting and turning with his star Melanie Laurent. For a moment, everyone watched as the duo bucked the tradition of a formal line dictated on the world's most dignified red carpet (no mani cams here). "I've been dealing with many, many directors over the years, and Quentin is the only one who has a very unique relationship with the audience in France. He's like a rock star," says French publicist Jean-Pierre Vincent.

Order was restored when the Cannes Film Festival's official song, "The Carnival of the Animals," blared, but don't let France's love of the American director deceive you: The Cannes red-carpet premiere is a decorous dance choreographed over decades. Every night, 2,300 invited guests walk the Palais' bright red carpet (which is changed out every day for each official screening) as 285 photographers yell for their attention. Climbing those 24 iconic steps as hundreds of screaming fans look on can make even the most jaded actor go wide-eyed. "It's the Super Bowl of all carpets," says publicist Liza Anderson of Anderson Group PR. "It's as if you're surrounded by an ocean of people as far as the eye can see." And because it is unlike any other red carpet, it comes with its own set of rules -- and every actor must watch their step.

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1 Dress to Impress …

The dress code is strictly black-tie -- strictly, that is, for the noncelebrity guest. As an attendee, brown shoes with a black tux are enough to get one booted. "On my very first attempt to go, I had to run back to the hotel to leave my big purse," says Sonia Mehandjiyska, Electric Entertainment's head of international distribution, who learned the hard way that only a clutch will do. But celebrities walking the carpet -- and sometimes their entourages -- can get away with a lot more than the nonglitterati. One veteran publicist says the worst offense he has witnessed was when Michael Pitt showed up in tattered jeans for 2002's out-of-competition premiere of Murder by Numbers. "Everybody was surprised, but nobody told him, 'Go back to your room and change,' " says the rep. Actors have been known to get away with a blue suit or a long tie instead of a bow tie. But why risk it? Says Mark Pogachefsky of MPRM Communications, "Always carry a bow tie in your pocket -- that's my rule."

2 … But No One Cares Who You're Wearing

"Sometimes when American actors go to Cannes, they think they'll be doing interviews on the red carpet, but then they find out that's not the case," says Pogachefsky, who has been to Cannes more than 20 times. Many publicists say the Cannes carpet is an easier trek for their stars because there are only two on-camera interview stations, both at the start of the carpet: one for TV Festival de Cannes, the official channel of the fest, and the other for Canal Plus. Didier Allouch, the reporter for the festival's official crew, also will interview celebrities who are not involved with the film being shown, but he is forbidden from asking jury members their thoughts on competition titles.

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3 Don't Outshine the Film

The trickiest part of the red carpet is that nothing -- and no one -- is supposed to outshine the film, which can be especially challenging when a big star is in attendance. Jury members (who in past years have included Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman and Robert De Niro) are expected to arrive early so as not to take the spotlight from the cast. When Patricia Arquette attended the 1995 premiere of Beyond Rangoon, she brought Nicolas Cage. The newly married couple had not made many public appearances together, and the focus turned to them instead of the John Boorman film. "I've had a few problems with the actress or actor wanting to be with his girlfriend or wife, who has nothing to do with the film. That's a major fight I have quite often," says Vincent, adding that the Basterds premiere exemplified how A-list talent should behave. When Brad Pitt arrived with Angelina Jolie, they already had agreed Pitt would walk with his cast then return to walk Jolie down the carpet. "That was the most elegant thing to do," says Vincent.

4 Stay in Step With Tradition

When a film's talent reaches the bottom of the stairs, they walk together up the first half, where they are greeted by Cannes president Gilles Jacob and festival director Thierry Fremaux. This year, Pierre Lescure, who will become president in 2015 when Jacob steps down, is likely to attend many premieres, but he will not take the focus from Jacob by greeting talent. This high-profile meet-and-greet is one of the most important moments on the carpet, say publicists. Usually a director or actor who has been to Cannes before introduces the newcomers. After more photos, the Cannes brass and the stars walk the remaining steps together and pose again for cameras at the top of the stairs. They will stay in the theater's lobby until the seated area is completely quiet. Only then will they take their reserved seats at the center, in row I. Says Allouch, "Cannes is always on time -- always."