Cannes: The Backroom Politics Behind the Festival's Lineup

Illustration by: John Ueland

A good word from Spielberg? You're probably golden. How who you know has a lot to do with which films get in.

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

Want to get your film into competition in Cannes? Call Steven Spielberg. That, according to festival director Thierry Fremaux, is how Tommy Lee Jones helped secure prime Cannes real estate for his latest outing, The Homesman. Last year, as president of the festival's jury, Spielberg put in a word with Fremaux on behalf of his Lincoln star. When Jones sent a cut of his dark Western to Cannes' selection committee, it got fast-tracked. "We were almost too scared to look at it in case we didn't like it," says Fremaux. "But it lived up to Spielberg's expectations."

Critics and audiences will have the final say on Homesman, but the Spielberg connection highlights an overlooked aspect of Cannes: Informal negotiations and insider dealings affect which movies get picked for the world's premier film festival. Behind every official Cannes selection is a story of backroom power plays, ego massaging and cold, strategic calculation.

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"Whenever a film doesn't get picked, it is always 'not ready' for Cannes," says one veteran festivalgoer. "In reality, that usually means either the studio held it back for awards season, Cannes rejected it because it wasn't good enough -- or it didn't have strong enough backers pushing for it."

Fremaux hinted, though officially declined comment, that Fox Searchlight held back Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman, starring Emma Stone and Edward Norton, and Warner Bros. did the same with Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice -- in both cases so the studios could focus on the second half of the year for an awards push. (Distributors worry about sustaining momentum, citing the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis as coming up short this past awards season despite a strong Cannes reception and a Grand Jury Prize win.) In what looks like a bit of Cannes horse trading, Warner Bros. did give the festival the world premiere of Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River. And Cannes returned the favor as two other competition films have a WB connection: The Search, from The Artist's Michel Hazanavicius, which the studio is releasing in France; and Damian Szifron's comedy Wild Tales, which it is handling in Spain and Argentina.

Given the fickle nature of studios, Cannes is careful to nurture its relationship with Hollywood players by offering choice programming slots and wooing top talent for plum jury jobs. Fremaux spent years courting Spielberg before the director finally took the jury president position in 2013. Harvey Weinstein, a perpetual Croisette crawler, has been offered the opening night gala for Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman. He might snub Cannes at the last minute, though, after being locked in a public battle with Monaco director Olivier Dahan over final cut (French law always gives final cut to the realisateur).

Sony Pictures Classics is another established player with plenty of Cannes clout, and co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard seem to have had no problem locking up competition spots for Foxcatcher, from Moneyball director Bennett Miller, and Mike Leigh's period drama Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall as British artist J.M.W. Turner.

But of all the studios, DreamWorks Animation has the best and most lasting relationship with the festival. After DWA gave Cannes the world premieres of tentpoles Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, the fest is paying back CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg with a special out-of-competition screening of How to Train Your Dragon 2, which also will mark the studio's 20th anniversary. "It's a way of thanking Jeffrey Katzenberg for bringing his films here and continuing to support the festival," says Fremaux.

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If a film doesn't have a powerful Hollywood studio to exert pressure on Cannes, then a major French distributor is the next best thing. Gallic giants such as EuropaCorp, Wild Bunch, Gaumont and StudioCanal and powerful second-tier indies including MK2, Le Pacte and Les Films du Losange maintain contact with festival programmers and know where to apply pressure to make sure their movies make the cut. "The single most important part of the Cannes equation is to have a well-heeled French distributor on board, with personnel familiar with the Cannes decision-makers," says one distributor.

Because the local distributor typically picks up the tab to bring in talent and the bill for a blowout premiere party, it often negotiates with the fest with the tacit understanding that if a prime slot is offered, then red carpet VIPs are guaranteed. That reportedly is one reason Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria -- with an A-list lineup that includes Kristen Stewart, Chloe Moretz and Juliette Binoche -- got a plum competition slot.

Darker reports of "brown envelopes of cash" changing hands in pay-for-play deals, though, appear to be the stuff of Cannes legend. "You hear about this kind of thing every couple of years, but I've never seen one concrete example of it actually happening," says one senior festivalgoer.

But in the shadowy world of French cinema politics, it is undeniable the big producers and distributors -- who have ties to every level of the apparatus, from top talent to the federal, state and local politicians that help decide Cannes' budget -- also influence the festival's programming. If a major Gallic distributor is set on using Cannes to launch its next big film, then chances are the fest will find room for it. Anyone doubtful of the links between the festival and the French film business need only look at Pierre Lescure, a former head of media giant Canal Plus who will take over as festival president from Gilles Jacob in 2015. While Fremaux as director oversees the official lineup, the Cannes president exerts considerable influence from behind the scenes.

That Cannes is an old boys' club with an inner circle of anointed directors also is hard to refute. This year's lineup is packed with familiar faces including regulars Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Loach, Atom Egoyan, Hazanavicius, Leigh, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and David Cronenberg. Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase, a Cannes Grand Prize winner for 2007's The Mourning Forest who returns with the competition entry Still the Water, is -- alongside jury president Jane Campion -- among a small group of female filmmakers who have joined this group.

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"It is hard to avoid the sense that Cannes is an insiders' clique," says a European sales agent. "If your director has been 'tapped' to join the club, you can go every year; if not, good luck getting in the door."

There is no magical formula that explains why Cannes picks one director over another, though festival officials have a taste for directors they feel have been dismissed unfairly in their home countries, such as Abel Ferrara in the U.S. and Loach in the U.K. Cannes also prides itself on art house cred and picks auteurs such as the Dardenne brothers, Ceylan and Kawase whose films are too extreme to find a broad audience. "It really helps if Cannes can take credit for 'discovering' your director," says one veteran publicist, noting that the festival enjoys celebrating talent that has come up through the Cannes farm system, such as Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who did stints in Directors' Fortnight and Un Certain Regard before getting a competition slot this year with Mommy.

In the end, when it comes to independent films without strong studio backers, Cannes holds all of the cards. The French festival has only grown in strength compared with its closest European competitors, Berlin and Venice. "It's really the only game in town," says a festival veteran. "Every director wants to go there; every indie distributor wants that exposure. They can snub you and be sure, come next time, the same director, the same producers will be back, begging for more punishment."