Monday, 4 June 2012

Cannes Film Festival: A Handbook - Part 2

I hope part 1 about the logistics of attending the Cannes film festival did not put you off because it is still totally worth going. And now for the films! Not that it is that easy to see them either. But, trust me on this, it is worth all the expenses, sleep deprivation... The Cannes Film Festival is very different from others in the sense that it is not open to the public, and with a few exceptions, it is just not possible to buy tickets to watch films, you need to obtain some invitations for each screening. But it is so incredibly exciting, and truly magical!

Getting Accredited

Unlike other film festivals which usually offer one type of press pass, and one type of industry pass, the Cannes Film Festival has a dizzying array of passes on offer. There are for example four different kind of press passes, each with a different priority for screenings. You will need to apply through the festival's website at the start of the year so keep an eye on it from January on. As you might expect, demand is high, and the festival has been late to catch up with the whole film bloggers scene. I was lucky enough to get a press pass for the London Film Festival and Sundance London so I thought I would give it a try but my request was swiftly turned down. I am not sure what their criteria are but I suspect my blog is probably a little too amateur for them. FYI my average pageview count is 500 a day but that was nowhere near enough, and the passes are most probably only allocated to professional journalists.

Do not despair however. Cannes also offer a lower type, entry level of accreditation, the Cinephile one. This is the one I used to get when I went to Cannes in the 90's as a film reviewer for my uni's newsletter and which I was granted this year. To get one, you need to show them some evidence that you are a film fan, so have your own blog, be the member of a film club etc.... They are quite accommodating for those but it is on first come first served basis, so again, keep an eye on the festival's website and apply as soon as you can.  The difficulty is that press passes and Cinephile passes are done through separate departments, and you cannot apply for both at the same time. Try for the Press one if you think you stand a chance but make sure you get a response on time before the deadline for the Cinephile one, calling them to chase them if need be!

It is worth noting that an Industry pass might be an option even if you have only just made a short film for example. We met a Japanese student who had applied for a Cinephile pass, but, backing up his application with examples of a few amateur short films he had made, he was actually granted an Industry one (albeit a lower level one).

The Films

Before I go into details about how to actually watch them, let me give you some details about the different selections. Cannes does not actually show as many films as some other festivals like Toronto or even London, and as a estimate, I would say they show about 100 films within all the different selections. You also have a separate film market but that is a completely different entity.

The Cannes Film Festival has four different selections. The main one is the official selection, the one you will most hear about, with the biggest names and bigger films (assuming you count Abbas Kiarostami as a big name, all is relative!) Films are shown in the Theatre Lumiere, the main screen in the Grand Palais, that giant bunker by the Croisette (the seaside promenade). These are the films eligible for the main prizes, although other selections also have their own prizes. The selection is revealed late, about end of April, and usually has between 20 and 25 films. It is a popular misconception that Cannes only shows small, arthouse films but it is wrong. It has always been at the forefront of film trends, and is quite happy showing, sometimes on the same day, some small experimental film as well as a Hollywood blockbuster. It even had Up as the opening film a few years ago, with the audience in tuxedos and glamorous dresses wearing their 3D glasses!

Confusingly, another selection called Un Certain Regard is technically part of the official selection, although it is a separate line up altogether, and the films are shown in the Theatre Debussy, a smaller room in the Palais.

And then you have the Quinzaine des realisateurs (Director's fortnight), which is actually completely separate from the official selection, and was created during the events of "Mai 1968" (a time of unrest and general strike in France when the festival was cancelled) and whose films are shown in the Marriott hotel further down the Croisette. This selection is not to be sniffed at, with films from Michel Gondry and Raul Ruiz this year. Finally, La Semaine de la Critique is a selection that only shows first or second films, in the small Espace Miramar further down the Croisette.

Watching The Films!

Those of you accustomed to the London Film Festival and its relative ease to watch films (even taking in account the madness of Members Booking Day!) are in for a rude shock. As I was writing earlier, you cannot buy tickets for screenings, you need an invitation! And as more invitations than seats per screening are given out, you are not even guaranteed to get in!

For those with a Cinephile pass, we have our own dedicated centre. It used to be a large area in the basement of the Palais all these years ago, which was a great place to chill and kill some time in between screenings, sadly, it has now been reduced to a tent five minutes away from it, with nowhere to sit. They just do not offer invitations for screenings of the Official Selection, except for the Midnight screenings, which are usually genre/horror films and great fun, with a mixture of glam and horror fans. The centre will have some tickets for all sort of smaller screenings, documentaries and "Cannes Classics" (screenings of old films) however. But do not despair! We still ended up watching a majority of films from the official selection and so can you! More of that later.

Kerching! An invitation for a screening

With your Cinephile pass, you are able to get in with no invitations for the films of Un Certain Regard, La Quinzaine, and La Semaine de la Critique, for free! Great I hear you say. Except that it is subject to availability, and there is a priority system for queuing, with four different queues, with us Cinephile badge holders being the bottom of the food chain. And that means being there at least an hour before the start of the screening, potentially more if you are truly desperate to watch a particular film. For busy screenings of Un Certain Regard, it is not unusual for even those at the start of the Cinephile badge queue not to get in at all. And on my first attempt at La Quinzaine, being there an hour early was not enough and I did not get in, which is all the most frustrating as it is a waste of time when you could have tried to watch another film! It also means that for us, it was nearly impossible to watch films back to back because of the need to queue so early.

The queue to get into a La Quinzaine screening

So how about the Official Selection in the Grand Palais then? There can be up to 6 screenings daily there, from 830am till sometimes 2am. The most important film of the day is shown at 830am, then again at 2pm and then its gala screening of 730pm with the cast and crew. A second, usually "smaller" film is shown at 11am then its 10pm gala screenings. Sometimes, a film might only have one screening, at 4pm. And then there are the midnight screenings as described above. By the way, it is worth pointing out the incredibly strict dress code. Evening gala screenings are tuxedos or nothing. You can get away with a jacket and a bow tie but you might stand out. Women should go for smart evening wear. It might sound strict but this is part of what makes Cannes so glamorous. Midnight screenings do not have such a strict dress code, which does not stop some people still dressing up really smartly, hilariously clashing with horror fans in loose jeans and old trainers.

On a separate note, do not expect Q&A's! The festival is far too glamorous for that, and there are separate press conferences for each film, reserved for accredited journalists.

To watch films in the Official Selection in the Grand Palais, as a Cinephile badge holder, there are two ways.

First of all, and a new feature of the festival since my previous visits, there is a last minute queue, on the left side of the red steps of the Grand Palais, reserved for badge holders. Frustratingly, and confusingly even, Cinephile badge holders are only allowed to queue for the 4pm and 10pm screenings, whereas industry badge holders can try it for any screening. We only tried it once, for the 4pm screening of In Another Country by Hang Sang Soo, with Isabelle Huppert. We put ourselves in the queue a good 90 minutes before the start (under the rain) with only about 5 people before us. It is a little nerve-wracking however, as you only find out if you are going to get in a mere 5 minutes before the start, and there is no guarantee till then! A young man in the queue told us with tears in his eyes how he queued for 4 hours to try to get into Inglorious Basterds a few years ago and still did not get in...

But we got lucky, and just as we saw Isabelle Huppert and the whole cast and crew go up the red carpet, we were ushered, (or pushed in is the right word!) into the screening in a mad rush to take the empty seats just as the credits were about to roll!

Isabelle Huppert down there, trust me, I know you cannot see her well!

Speaking of which, I must point out what a totally different experience watching a film in Cannes is. I had already seen Isabelle Huppert in person at the BFI in London when she was bestowed with a fellowship, but this was something else! The screaming crowd that gathers around the Palais to watch the stars walk up the red carpet, the mass of photographers screaming... The glamour factor is incredibly high, and part of what makes Cannes so magical. I have done several red carpet screenings at the London Film Festival, but it is nothing like it, and the main difference is that you actually climb up steps to the Grand Palais, covered with a red carpet obviously, with a crowd of screaming fans on the side, all of which gives it a certain theatricality!

I remembered reading how Tom Cruise himself got incredibly impressed with his first "red carpet" there, despite obviously being used to premieres in Hollywood and elsewhere. And the Grand Palais itself... I am told that it is the biggest cinema in the world with over 2500 seats and the atmosphere is properly electric! Plus you are not allowed to eat there, that's right, no popcorn, FAR too vulgar. Even drinking is slightly frowned upon and I got told off for getting a bottle of water out by one of the usherettes! Below is a video I took of Isabelle Huppert getting into the screening of In Another Country, just as we were about to be let in from the last minute queue!

And then you get to see films before anybody else in the whole world, sometimes without even having seen a trailer and read any article or review, which is invaluable these days, allowing you to make your mind up about them with no interferences. I have an incredible memory of being part of the first audience in the world to see Pulp Fiction back in 1994, without knowing the slightest thing about it. The rest is history... And the audience is incredible, applauding, or booing at the end of the credits if they did not like the film... Many will also quite simply leave if the film is not to their liking. It might sounds like the sort of thing a film fan would never do, but with invitations being free and everybody on a tight schedule, it is a Cannes tradition. A very cruel design flaw of the seats means they make a loud noise when somebody gets up, so you can gauge the reaction of the audience by the number of times you hear the sound of seats going back up.

It is probably the best place to watch films. Where else would you see some small, experimental films, such as Post Tenebras Lux this year, in a massive screen with an audience of over 2000 people? With a bit of luck, such a film might show at the London Film Festival, possibly get a UK release, or possibly never get shown! I do have to warn you that there are times when tiredness and early screenings might cloud your judgement negatively. This year, while still in Nice, we had to wake up at 5am to see the hotly anticipated Killing Them Softly by Andrew Dominik with Brad Pitt. Drinking 2 very strong coffees to keep me awake, I managed to have a bit of a caffeine induced panic attack while somehow falling asleep at the same time, being slightly bored by the film and overtired. And I am pretty sure I took some micronaps while watching Cosmopolis at yet another 830am screening, again being rather bored.

So the first way of getting in is last minute queue. But how did we manage to see all these other films at the Grand Palais? We went the unofficial way and begged. That's right we begged. Many professionals are often given more invitations for daytime screenings than they need when they prebook them, these bear a barcode and are scanned at the entrance. If they do not make full use of all their invitations, they receive less the following year. Which is why, by posting yourself near the entrance of the Palais a good 90 minutes before a screening, holding a clear, handwritten sign that specifies that you are looking for an invitation for such and such screening, and with a smile, you stand a good chance to be handed over an invitation by those on their way to the screening! It sounds a little daunting, not to mention slightly cringe-worthy, but it actually works, with our strike rate this year being 9 out of the 10 films we tried to get in using this system. Quite a lot of people do it actually, be it the local pensioners, film students, or just film fans of any age!

My sophisticated system to get into a screening. Don't laugh, it works!

And do not be shy, it is one of the traditions of the festivals, and if you look intensely "Cinephile" (as if your life depended on you seeing the latest film by Kiarostami) and with a smile, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I was particularly impressed by how helpful and nice everybody was about the whole thing, even others also looking for invitations! You might think we were competitors, looking for the same thing, but everybody was looking out for each other, with often some of them giving us unwanted invitations for nothing, purely out of kindness, and I certainly did the same. You would be surprised but some more hardcore people even use this system for the incredibly glamorous evening gala screenings, all dressed up in tuxedos, with their sign in hand by the Palais, and it works!

Clutching that all important invitation!

What is also magical about Cannes is that the vast majority of people there for the festival are obviously not locals, unlike what happens say at the London Film Festival, and I just love the way everybody is happy to talk to each other, be it while queuing, waiting for a film to start... Everybody is here with the same passion for films, and it shows. If anything, unlike my visits of the 90's, there seems to be less parasites only trying to hog some of the limelight and get invitations to parties, and more and more people truly passionate about films. Among others, we met an Italian director, an Israeli DP, the programmer of an intriguing small film festival, a Japanese student/actor... There is just a great, vibrant atmosphere!

And while we are at it, what about "the stars"? Well your best chance to bump into them (unless you are going to parties) lies with the members of the jury. Having to watch every single films in the selection means they will more often go to the daytime ones. They sit in a private booth at the back of the Grand Palais where you can see them. Since 1997 under the then President of the jury Isabelle Adjani's initiative, the jury is only composed of artists, be it directors, actors etc... which makes it a whole lot glamorous, as opposed to the film critics and producers that used to make up part of the jury previously. And over the years, I have bumped into Pedro Almodovar (in 1992, as a very shy teenager, I still managed to find the courage to ask for an autograph!), Jamie Lee Curtis, Gary Oldman (in 1993, at a time when he was my hero and I nearly fainted when I spoke to him), Sigourney Weaver etc... And this year I bumped into Alexander Payne, but was far too shy to speak to him, ah well!

Talking about queuing, even once you have managed to secure an invitation, it is still not the end of it! First of all, there are two types of invitations, blue and red. Anybody can get in with a blue invitation, even without a badge. Red ones are for badge holders, but not for Cinephile badge holders. You can still get in with such a badge and a red invitation, provided you are getting in with somebody who holds a professional pass. It is never a problem though, and the minute you score one and put yourself in the queue, just ask anybody with such a pass whether you can go in with them, they always say yes and this will keep the security people happy.

And as I was saying, even with an invitation, you stand a chance not to get in. The festival hands over more invitations per screening than there are seats (to avoid empty seats!) and it is advisable to start queuing an hour prior to a screening, with doors being shut 20 minutes before. I did manage to get in once a mere 25 minutes before a screening, having only just managed to get an invitation by then but that was nerve-wracking. The 11am films usually get a press screening the day before, reserved for press badge holders, but not the 730pm one, which means scores of journalists will also try to get in at the 830am screening to be the first to publish a review. This has lead to ugly scenes at the Palais last year for the 830am screening of The Tree Of Life, where a fight broke up and the police had to be called! Only in Cannes!

The crowd rushes in to get into a screening

Just a small word about those with a professional pass. Even for them, seeing films is not all that easy. For what I understand, based on your "importance", you are given a certain number of points to be traded against invitations, each with a different point value. And perversely, booking invitations need to be done online, and bookings open exactly 24 hours prior to the screening, filling up nearly instantly, which means since screenings are at the same hour every day, if you watch the 11am screening, you will not be able to apply for the 11am screening of the next day! Which is why a lot of Industry accredited people were also having to beg for invitations, just like us!

By the way, if you go to the festival, make sure you stay for the last day! The closing ceremony takes place on the Sunday when the prizes are announced, and on that day, all the films of the selection are shown back to back from morning till late in the evening, in smaller screens of the Grand Palais, a great way to catch those you missed. Plus you are allowed in even with a Cinephile badge, although you do have to queue yet again, and it is first come first served! We were not aware when planning our trip and were on our way home that day, a real shame!

So there you go. I have barely scratched the surface of the festival, and we did not even try the infamous parties of Cannes on the local private beaches or villas, thrown by film companies and magazines. I did manage to get invited to an afternoon party with Agnes Varda though, with free flowing champagne, through friends. But parties in Cannes are a whole different story, best left for somebody in the know.

The rush on the red carpet at a gala screening

I hope this has given you a good enough impression of what to expect at the festival. It is at times exhausting, with a lot of queuing, all done outside, sometimes under the scorching sun, also sometimes under heavy rain (I am not sure what was worse!), a lot of early mornings and late nights, running around... But so incredibly exciting and completely worth it! There is a madness and a magic to the festival which just cannot be described! You might prefer he relative safety of say, the London Film Festival, with is guaranteed seating and ticket system, but any film fan should experience it at least once in their life! As for me, I am already planning next year's visit. Below is a video I took at the Maniac gala midnight screening, on our last day, last screening, with the crowd going mad for Elijah Wood at 3 in the morning, a great memory!

In the meantime, feel free to ask me any questions you might have through the contact button on this blog or on Twitter (I am @FilmLandEmpire as you might have guessed).

At 3am, on our last day, last glimpse of the Grand Palais after the Midnight Gala screening of Maniac!
Good bye Cannes!


  1. Thank you so much for writing this! Cannes is not as impossible a dream as I thought, and I hope to be able to refer to it again when I make the trip one day.

  2. Glad you liked it! And I do hope you make it one day, totally worth it!

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  4. So, unlike the Toronto Film Festival where once accepted you are 'a returning delegate' ever year, Cannes you must apply for accreditation each and every year you plan to attend?