Cannes Artistic Director on Battling Netflix, Banning Selfies and Gender Equality on the Croisette

Thierry Fremaux - 71st Cannes Film Festival Official Selection Presentation - Getty - h 2018
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Thierry Fremaux also weighs in on the lack of Hollywood fare in this year's lineup and the controversial new rules surrounding press screenings: "Cannes will always be criticized."

On Thursday, Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux unveiled his festival's 71st official selection, which will include new films by Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard, David Robert Mitchell and Jafar Panahi.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter afterward in Cannes' brand-new Paris headquarters, Fremaux reflected on this year's lineup while discussing some of the more controversial topics surrounding the upcoming festival, including the new press screening rules, Netflix pulling out of the program, the banning of selfies and the presence of female filmmakers on the Croisette.

This morning you announced the majority of the titles in Cannes' 2018 lineup, including 18 films playing in competition. How many more movies will be revealed in the days to come?

There should be five or six more films announced next week, a few of which will play in competition. In general, we tend to show a total of 20 or 21 movies in competition.

The selection announced thus far has a surprising number of new faces, especially for a festival where we usually see the same directors pop up each year in competition. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?

We don't have a fixed agenda in Cannes and we don't make any decisions in advance. But as we were watching movies for this year's selection, we began to realize that there were a lot of new voices worth programming either in competition or in other parts of the selection, such as the Un Certain Regard sidebar. And so we decided to go in that direction.

But there are many Cannes alumni — Lars von Trier, Mike Leigh and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for example — who haven't been chosen. And that's rare.

They haven't been chosen yet. … Don't forget that the selection is not quite complete.

What's notable is the lack of American movies, with only three in the whole program. The absence of films from the U.S. seems to be a growing trend in Cannes each year.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that over the last few years, the majority of American art films prefer to wait for the fall festival season, which is when they begin their Oscar campaigns. It's not necessarily the directors who decide this, because many of them would love to screen in Cannes. But for producers and distributors, the fact that Cannes takes place in May is way too early for them in terms of the Oscars — and the American film industry is obsessed with the Oscars.

This problem seems to be much more prevalent than before. Ten or 15 years ago, the Oscar season wasn't necessarily so pivotal for certain American films.

It's much more important now, which is why everyone premieres in the fall and we wind up losing movies to other festivals. For instance, Paul Thomas Anderson had no problem premiering Punch-Drunk Love in Cannes back in 2002. But today — and even if he's become a friend of mine now — that would simply be impossible. His film would absolutely have to come out during awards season.

The second reason there are fewer American movies is that we decided not to screen any films that already premiered at Sundance or SXSW, as was previously done. We really wanted to focus on world premieres this time. But believe me, we have nothing against American films. When Spike Lee screens us BlacKkKlansman and says that he's ready to go, then we're with him there. The same goes for Solo: A Star Wars Story, which will be released theatrically around the world the week after its Cannes premiere. Sometimes it's just a question of timing.

There has been much ink spilled recently about the new press screening rules in Cannes, which will oblige critics to watch competition films either simultaneously with the public or else the next day. Other festivals use embargoes, which allow critics to preview films early but hold the reviews until after the premiere. Why can't Cannes do the same?

Because it's impossible to embargo 1,200 film critics. … Though I really want to make it clear that the new rules are not meant to punish the press. Over the past years, preview screenings also were attended by industry professionals and other people, so word of mouth would spread no matter what, either through Twitter or other means. In terms of an embargo, it would perhaps be possible to do that for 200 journalists, but then that would be unfair for all the other journalists who would have to wait. Other festivals can do that, but other festivals don't have 4,000 credited journalists!

When I first came to Cannes, I myself was a young journalist writing for local papers in my hometown of Lyon. And I would get up in the morning and walk into the first press screening at 8:30. Now, for the 8:30 screening, you have to get there 45 minutes early. ... There's no longer enough room to accommodate anyone — the Palais des Festivals is too small. If we had more room for everyone at Cannes, then it would be much better.

But the new press rules seem to be diminishing the power of critics and journalists, who feel like their voices will carry less weight than before.

I feel like that's already the case, and you know why? Because everyone starts tweeting out their opinions in Cannes as soon as the end credits roll, or else as soon as they exit the Debussy theater, so that they can be the first to say something. In his preface to the biography of the critic Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut wrote that we need to remember how back during Bazin's time, critics would always see movies with the public in regular movie theaters. And then they would write their reviews, which would come out on Friday for a movie that was released in France on a Wednesday. Today, everyone needs to see films early, either in press screenings, on DVD or on links, and journalists no longer have the experience of watching films in the theater like regular people. So, I actually think that having critics in Cannes see films with the public will allow them to reflect differently, or to take more time to write something more than a tweet. But we'll see. … This is an experiment. We'll try it out and see how it works.

Still, some critics are very unhappy with the decision…

Either way, Cannes will always be criticized, and more often than the other festivals. Look at Sundance, Telluride, Toronto or even Venice — critics tend to seek out the positive, whereas in Cannes they're always looking for the negative. For instance, I haven't read one single article defending our position on selfies, and you know what? I don't care anymore. If nobody's going to try to defend us, then that's just too bad.

Cannes is definitely the only festival I know where there can be such loud booing and hissing at a press screening.

And sometimes we lose films because of that — especially American films, because they don't want to run the risk of a bad Cannes reception. Of course, critics have the right to boo, and that's part of the Cannes folklore. The new rules won't change that. Critics can react one way in the Debussy theater during the press show, while the reaction during the gala screening in the Lumiere theater may be totally different. And sometimes the press may wind up preferring a film that the public will dislike. Certain auteur films screened in Cannes have been very much boosted by the press over the years, and that remains crucial.

Let's move on to Netflix. On Wednesday the company announced it would pull all submissions from Cannes because of rules that will not allow Netflix movies to play in competition without a theatrical release in France. At this point, Cannes and Netflix seem to be at an impasse. What's next?

It's an interesting debate. We're now in 2018 and the film industry has changed with regards to what I call 'cinematographic creation.' Netflix is behind that change, but they're also a company that loves cinema — just like we do at Cannes. But they have a business model, which is the internet, while our model, whether it's right or wrong, is a festival where films are screened in theaters and then released in theaters in France. Last year, I wanted to invite two Netflix films into competition [Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories] and I was criticized for that. But I did so anyway, and then the rules were changed. Actually, they weren't changed, but rather an existing rule was reaffirmed — a rule written several decades ago saying that competition films needed to be released in French theaters, because back then all movies played in theaters.

But then Netflix didn't release those films in French theaters…

And they had their reasons for doing so, which I respect. Because the 'chronology of media' laws in France say that a film can only play on a VOD platform like Netflix 36 months after its theatrical release. So maybe the chronology needs to evolve. In a way, the existence of Netflix forces us to question existing practices, to rethink them. 

If the laws don't change, then it looks like Netflix will continue to shun Cannes, which is too bad. For instance, the premiere of Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind would have been perfect for the festival, where Welles won a Palme d'Or for his film Othello and was once president of the jury.

The Other Side of the Wind would have played out of competition, which didn't pose a problem for the rules. ... Listen, we've had a good dialogue with Netflix in the past and I respect Ted Sarandos. And I want to tell him that if he accepted to screen the Welles film in Cannes, if we decided to celebrate such a major movie event together, then it would be a great thing for Netflix. They paid for the entire restoration of the film and they would be welcomed in Cannes as heroes. Netflix has its economic model, but Netflix also loves cinema, so why couldn't they decide to bring a few films to Cannes each year — whether out of competition, or else in competition, and then wait 36 months to release it on their platform? They have a lot of movies, and if Cannes decided to program one of them in competition, then why not just go for it?

With regards to the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, do you feel like Cannes is heading in the right direction? Someone at the press conference today criticized the fact that there were only three films by women in this year's competition.

To paraphrase the great French writer Marguerite Yourcenar: When you write, you don't have a gender. And in Cannes we don't distinguish by gender in the selection. If the 18 best films shown to us are by women, then we'll program 18 films by women in competition. And if the 18 best films are by men, then we'll program 18 films by men. We don't want the selection to privilege one gender, age or race over another.

However, the reality is that while half the world population is made up of women, there are much less women who are film directors. And I hope that one day the number of women directors does represent half the total. There are already more and more female filmmakers each year, and in Cannes we've usually been ahead of the statistics — we've screened films by many of the major female directors of the past decades. It's also very likely that my successors, in 10 or so years from now, will have much more films by women to program than I do. But in the immediate, if I have two movies to choose from that I like equally, one of which is directed by a man and the other by a woman, then it's possible I'll choose the one directed by a woman.

Do you see any specific themes emerging from this year's selection?

We live in a civilization right now where images are everywhere — on your telephone screen, on YouTube and all over the rest of the internet. And yet the movies in this year's competition, such as the Egyptian, Lebanese or Chinese films — or Eva Husson's film Girls of the Sun, about Kurdish female soldiers — reveal how the cinema continues to tell us about our own world in an extremely singular way. When Louis Lumiere sent his camera operators across the planet over 100 years ago, it was to bring back images of the rest of the world. And the cinema continues to do this, perhaps more so this year than before — which is why the competition seems so diverse, and also why we've officially decided to ban selfies. You need to respect real images. And when you go to Cannes, you should go to see, not to be seen.