Critic's Notebook: Cannes Pulls the Red Carpet Out From Under the Press

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Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux

Artistic director Thierry Fremaux has upended the festival's press policy, obliging critics to watch competition movies at the same time, or after, they're seen by the public. But is it that big a deal?

With all that’s going on in the world right now, that a film festival has decided to alter its press screening rules shouldn’t register as a blip on anyone’s radar. But when that festival is Cannes, which remains the creme de la creme of international film events and the one most coveted by the press — more than 4,000 critics and journalists attended last year’s edition — such news inevitably raises a few eyebrows.

The changes were outlined in an interview with Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux published last Friday in the French trade paper Le Film Français. After proclaiming that selfies, his long-running pet peeve, finally would be banned from the red carpet, Fremaux explained how the fest’s traditional press screening policy would be upended for the 2018 edition, which kicks off Tuesday, May 8 (a day earlier than usual). Instead of holding press screenings of competition and other gala films before their official premieres, as has been the case for several decades, the press will now be invited to watch such movies simultaneously with the public (for films screening in the afternoon or early evening) or else the next day (for films premiering at the 10 p.m. red-carpet show).

The main reason for this seems to be complaints over the years from filmmakers, stars, producers, sales agents and other power players whose Croisette premieres have been dampened by bad reviews released hours before they even step onto the red carpet, thus ruining what’s supposed to be a major moment in their careers. (Unlike Berlin, Cannes does not have an embargo policy on reviews, which can go out as soon as a film screens for the press — sometimes a day before the public premiere.)

In his book Selection officielle, Fremaux cites the 2016 case of Sean Penn’s The Last Face, which was lambasted by critics after its morning presser (the cackles apparently started during the opening credits), killing the mojo of a film that many believed shouldn’t have played competition in the first place. (Fremaux seems to regret that choice as well.) Another title mentioned is Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees — dubbed “The Sea of Cheese” and "The Sea of Zzzzzzs" by a few critics — which crashed and burned in competition the year before. One could also cite Michel Hazanavicius’ The Search, greeted by on onslaught of pans in 2014, or Valerie Donzelli’s 2015 competition entry Marguerite & Julien, which The Guardian dubbed “buttock-clenchingly embarrassing.”

Granted, when you’re premiering in competition at the mother of all film festivals, you can’t always expect mother to greet you with hugs and kisses. Sometimes she’s going to smack you in the face and send you off to bed without dinner. Any filmmaker who accepts a Cannes competition slot knows what the stakes are, and in the best cases you can become an overnight sensation — witness, in recent years, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Drive or Hazanavicius’ own The Artist — or else land with a major thud, such as Jacques Doillon’s French competition title Rodin did last year.

In other cases, critics take the gloves off for a film, like Xavier Dolan's 2016 competition entry It's Only the End of the World, which then goes on to have a healthy life anyway (Dolan's entry won the fest's second-place Grand Prize and was shortlisted for a foreign-language Oscar the next year) — suggesting that these new screening rules are unnecessary in the long run.

That Fremaux and his team want to avoid red-carpet blues for their invités is certainly their prerogative, and it’s doubtful that anyone on the filmmaking side is going to complain. [As someone who works as both a critic and sometime producer, I know what it’s like to be on the other end of the firing line: Before the Berlinale Forum premiere of an indie film I produced called Putty Hill, we received our one and only U.S. review from…The Hollywood Reporter, which absolutely eviscerated it. And even if a Forum premiere in Berlin is far from Cannes competition, I can tell you that the ambiance heading into our first big screening was, well — it totally sucked.]

Also, one needs to remember that Cannes’ longstanding press rules were drawn up during the pre-Internet, pre-social media days, when reviews could only run in print the day after screening for critics — thus, usually after their official red- carpet premieres. Of course, word of mouth could get out earlier, as it often did, but that’s not the same thing as reviews going up online just hours after the press show. Or even minutes after, with critics eagerly tweeting out their number or letter grades like fifth-grade teachers marking a math test.

Let us also not forget that top-tier festivals such as Toronto or Sundance already practice such a press policy, with world premieres often held prior to press screenings, forcing trade and daily critics to catch the first show along with the public. Venice, on the other hand, still allows reviews to be posted early (that’s perhaps the confidence of a fest that has premiered a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar winner for four out of the last five years), while Berlin has imposed a strict embargo policy in recent years, with constant policing of websites and social media by the festival’s rather authoritarian press office. Many suggest that Cannes turn to embargoes as well, which is perhaps something that could be adopted in the future.

The question for now is is: Will the power of film critics be diminished by the new rules? It’s hard to say at this point, even if it’s clear that many critics, especially those on the lower rungs of the Croisette's color-coded accreditation hierarchy, may be inconvenienced by a policy that could shut them out of certain screenings (a statement addressing this issue was published today by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics) or else oblige them to jockey for premiere tickets so they can crash red-carpet galas in a dress or tuxedo.

There will be some moaning and groaning — when isn’t there, when it comes to Cannes? — but it’s doubtful the rules will drive many journos away from a festival that remains the cinephile's equivalent of the Superbowl or World Cup. And in some cases, it could push them to provide more coverage of films screened in the festival's sidebars, which are often easier to access but neglected by many news outlets, rather than focusing solely on the big-ticket titles shown in the main competition.

As for the reviews themselves, they will still be read carefully by sales agents and buyers — the two major forces driving the Cannes market — who are well aware that a warm public premiere is not necessarily an accurate way to judge how a movie will perform outside the festival bubble. And they will still be read by people far away from the Cote d’Azur, for whom early reviews are the only way to learn about Cannes movies they are eager to see in their home countries. Perhaps buzz will be generated less by press reactions than before, though who’s to say that a film greeted modestly by the public couldn’t be championed by critics afterwards and take off from there?

In parts of Selection officielle, Fremaux hardly conceals his venom toward journalists who find fault with his festival — for its corporate sponsorship or close ties to certain film companies — or critics who go after some of the movies he’s programmed in competition, so the new press rules do read like a direct attack from the powers-that-be. But if they manage to prevent directors and castmembers from feeling completely humiliated before their work officially screens, then pourquoi pas? They have labored hard on their films, and at the very least can enjoy a few hours of euphoria before waking up the next morning to a hangover of vicious critiques. In any case, as their films screen to the public, members of the press will often be watching them at the same time in a theater right next door. And if the applause or boos are loud enough, perhaps they will be heard through the walls.