Amid Coronavirus, Cannes Hotel Policy Forces Festival Goers to Decide Now on Attending

Croisette Promenade - Cannes film festival general view- Getty-H 2017

As the global film industry awaits a decision about the 2020 edition, fest regulars are grappling with the decision to commit to the event even if it does happen: "The hotels want half the money now. Maybe you give up your reservation."

As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on a global scale, forcing cancellations across the industry, the Cannes Film Festival is still slated to go on as planned, for now. But festivalgoers are being forced to make their own decisions now given the prospect of non-refundable travel expenses.

Over the past week, a number of U.S.-based companies have been asked to secure their reservations at hotels including the Majestic and the Carlton — both prime locations on the Croisette — by putting down 50 percent of the total or lose their spots.

The fact that Riviera hotels typically offer no refunds is prompting some to make tough calls. “We are in the process of making a decision, and it's tough," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. "The hotels want half the money now. Maybe you give up your reservation, take a wait-and-see approach and you might end up in a hotel that's not what you're accustomed to. But Sony has a no-travel policy, so it's out of my hands.”

Sony isn't the only studio that has banned nonessential travel for its employees. Warner Bros., Amazon and CAA are among those with travel restrictions currently in place, making Cannes logistics particularly tricky (by contrast, Universal has no formal no-travel edict in place). Forfeiting a reservation poses a gamble given that Croisette-area hotel rooms are traditionally hard to come by during the run of the May festival. That phenomenon was compounded this year by the fact that half of the Carlton is under construction.

Many industryites say they expect Cannes to cancel the festival or, at the very minimum, call off the accompanying market, which attracts thousands of film buyers and sellers under the same roof. One option is to continue to screen the selected films but in venues that seat less than 1,000 people. Film companies in Europe are concerned about a lack of buyers, especially from Asia and the U.S., even if the market does go ahead. "We don't need Cannes for the European market, we just had Berlin for that," notes one European sales agent. "But if the Chinese, the Koreans and most of the Americans don't come, Cannes doesn't make much sense for us."

Ultimately, the decision to go through with the event is not up to the festival but rather the municipal government. The fact that the entire country of Italy, France's neighbor to the east, is under complete lockdown makes Cannes' prospects particularly bleak. If the festival is canceled, it would mark the first time in its modern history — the last time the festival was disrupted it was in 1968, when the festival was interrupted due to nationwide labor and student protests. The first edition of the festival in 1939 was shut down before it began due to the outbreak of World War II. After the first two festival, in 1947 and 1948, Cannes was not held in 1949 and 1950 for financial reasons.

Some Hollywood veterans are still holding on to their reservations, even if that means a possible forfeiture. Akin Gump attorney Chris Spicer travels annually to the festival and plans to do so again in May, so long as the festival is even partially functioning.

"I am always economical and traditionally share a room with [XYZ Films partner and brother Nick Spicer] so any cancellation would be shared with the family," he says.

In the U.K., which hasn't yet seen the same levels of reported outbreak experienced across much of Europe, some are canceling preemptively out of an abundance of caution. On Monday, British sales banner GFM became the first to reveal that it would not be heading to the South of France, irrespective of the festival's status.

"I can imagine that everything is being done to keep the festival alive. I just think there are massive problems with running a market at this time, with the number of people coming in and the number of meetings," says GFM Films co-founder Guy Collins, who has been attending Cannes since 1976. "At the end of the day, we're a small team, just 10 people, so if just one or two of those are knocked out of the process through self-isolation, it has a massive impact on our ability to function."

Collins said the decision not to attend Cannes didn't go down well with everyone — including some of his partners — but claimed he'd had supportive messages from people in the industry saying that it was a sensible move.

"We're always taking massive financial risks in this industry, but how do you manage a business in this situation?" he adds. "I also think there are some responsibility factors to colleagues and family that need to be considered."

In China, where the coronavirus originated and where 70,000 movie theaters remain shuttered, veteran Cannes-goers are reluctant to commit to the festival this year. Most say they doubt that the festival will actually be held. "A lot of people are just waiting to see what happens," says a buyer for CMC Pictures.

An acquisitions executive for Chinese distributor Times Vision said the company would usually have booked flights and hotels by now, but so far had made no commitments to attend.

An exec at leading private studio Huayi Brothers Media says he also won't be moving forward with arrangements until there was greater certainty that festival will take place as planned. Regarding many Cannes' hotels insistence on receiving 50 percent of booking fees upfront — and without potential refund — the exec simply says: "They'll have to change that policy, otherwise nobody here will dare to book." The exec also suggests that this year's festival will probably see a steep drop in attendance even if it does go forward, so finding a decent place to stay or to stage an event at the last minute shouldn't be too difficult.

A film buyer for Tang Media Partners in Beijing expressed what has become a common sentiment in the country's capital: "Europe has become more dangerous than China now."

The buyer says she also doubts whether European countries will be able to respond as aggressively to the virus as China did, with draconian containment measures. Other significant Chinese players already have all but given up on Cannes 2020. An exec at Wanda Pictures says the local film giant isn't expecting to attend any markets or festivals until AFM in November.

But another Hollywood lawyer who is facing a pay-up notice from the Majestic is torn, seeing the pluses and minuses of a festival held amid a global pandemic. “Even if the festival isn't canceled, do I want to go, knowing that it will be half the attendees?" he says. "Maybe it’s better because there will be less crowds and I can relax more than work. But it also will feel eerie.”

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.