Is Cannes Lions Now Glitzier Than the Film Festival?

Tony Barson/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Will Smith

The eight-day media conference has become a star-studded affair where Hollywood A-listers and Silicon Valley titans come together to strategize, talk shop — and party. Says one attendee: “It’s a prestige event.”

Yachts, parties, late nights at the Hotel du Cap, Harvey Weinstein, Gwyneth Paltrow and Will Smith. The typical Cannes scene each … June?

It’s not the film festival but the Cannes Lions “festival of creativity” that is attracting Hollywood talent and big bucks these days.

The Lions conference, which takes place June 17-June 24, began as an advertising awards show in Venice, but has rebranded itself as the "Festival of Creativity,” attracting a who’s who of ad celebs, buyers, agency execs, brand managers, media and entertainment companies, publishers, as well as the elite from tech giants like Facebook and YouTube, which are at their core ad firms. 

While Lions still hands out awards, the weeklong program is centered around TED-like talks about the future of the media business, convergence of "content" and the increasingly blurred lines between entertainment and advertising. 

But much of the allure is that execs from the less glamorous industries that fuel the business get to have their day in the sun — while rubbing elbows with Hollywood A-listers. 

This year, the star-studded lineup includes guests as diverse as Laura Dern, Kelly Clarkson, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellan, Jason Reitman and A$AP Rocky, as well as executives including Sky Atlantic director Zai Bennett and Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins.

In recent years, Spike Jonze, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jared Leto, Mindy Kaling, Ralph Fiennes, Simon Pegg,, Iggy Pop, Harvey Weinstein, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and HBO CEO Richard Plepler have been among the big-name speakers and attendees.

“It’s about bringing together disparate voices to talk about the future of entertainment," says Philip Thomas, CEO of conference organizer Ascential Events.

For celebs, Cannes Lions is an opportunity to discuss their own brands and causes  Paltrow discussed Goop’s growth plans and Smith covered his new Just Water venture, as well as Hollywood’s hits and misses  without the media frenzy that descends on Cannes during the film festival. There are about 55 prime speaking slots and companies such as Airbnb compete with celebrities amongst the 500 applications the Lions team receives.

But while the celebs often get the headlines, Thomas insists “there are very rich conversations to be had elsewhere at the festival as well.” For example, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took the stage shortly after Smith last year.

Music companies were the first to sign on, and now television and film have followed as entertainment companies struggle to find new ways to reach consumers in an increasingly crowded media landscape.

The Paramount Network picked Lions as the fest to launch its Alicia Silverstone and Meena Suvari-starring American Woman series, bypassing MIPTV in April. 

“I think being at Cannes Lions is syncing up with what that festival is about  a premium destination that connects brands and entertainment, so it’s the perfect opportunity,” Paramount Network president Kevin Kay told THR. “It’s a prestige event.”

“It’s become such an important thing in our world and anyone who is involved with media and technology, they all converge here, and this is now much bigger than Mipcom, or the Cannes Film Festival. It’s huge,” Moonves told THR at last year’s event. “Everyone you need to talk to is here.”

And it’s not just Hollywood. Attendees come back with stories of catching helicopter rides with Google chair Eric Schmidt, a rock star by Silicon Valley standards. Tech takes over the docks with splashy yacht parties that rival the late Cannes nights of the 1990s, bringing in bands such as Take That and Run-D.M.C. to entertain. It also brings in major money for the city — apartments and villas are pricier than the film festival, and the Carlton is fully booked a year ahead.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube stake their claim on the beaches with talks on the on the future of VR happening just a few chaise lounges away from the volleyball nets and smoothie bars. Spotify takes over a villa and throws big bashes all week.

“We’ve kinda gate-crashed it,” said Ciaran O’Kane, CEO of global data firm ExchangeWire. “In the last few years technology has kinda crept into the space and it’s become a hub for very senior people from the creative world, the tech world and the media world which all co-exist.”

“There’s more business to be done at Cannes Lions than there is to be done at the Cannes Film Festival. And that’s just a reflection of the theater market and independent film continuing to shrink against big blockbusters with global distribution. There aren’t those deals to be made anymore,” adds Jaunt VR head of production Canaan Rubin. “A lot of business has been sucked up by more tech-focused festivals, like CES, which has become a content market for electronics devices, and Lions.”