Cannes fever is upon us once again, as film-makers and sales agents await news on whether their new films have found favour with - and favourable slots in - the world’s most prestigious film festival.
But this year the pressure is as much on the festival to deliver a dazzling line-up as it is on the film-makers in official selection. In a year in which the industry is struggling to weather the vagaries of a depressed independent market, the festival of Cannes needs to put on a show that can help lift the spirits of the market side.
If it sounds like an illusion, it is. The festival and market at Cannes have always co-existed symbiotically, one buoying the other and artificially stirring up excitement for film among buyers and media alike. As much as Sylvester Stallone, the Spice Girls or Pamela Anderson can create a press frenzy promoting a new film in the market, so too buyers relish the excitement of discovery that can come from seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time, or All About My Mother, Life Is Beautiful, The Piano, Fargo, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Babel or In The Mood For Love.
But 2009 will be a bellwether Cannes. Strong as the festival line-up is shaping up to be, the market is facing some of its worst economic conditions in years. Buyers are more cautious than ever, many arriving with slimmed down acquisitions budgets, and sellers are struggling to find product in a climate starved of new financing sources. One of the jokes at the American Film Market and Berlin was that sellers were inundated with requests for meetings with buyers, only to find the buyers weren’t interested in new films but in renegotiating contracts for ones they had already bought.
In a business where fewer Cannes regulars are travelling business class and expense budgets are being slashed left and right, the exorbitant costs of attending Cannes hardly help the gloomy mood. One independent producer admits to drawing on all his entrepreneurial resources to attend this year, using airmiles to fly there and finding a studio apartment for $1,330 (EUR1,000) after weeks of online research and (Skype) calls to France.
But the fact he feels he has to attend - to close financing on two films - proves Cannes 2009 will be as crucial as ever in the film business year. Yes, many companies are struggling to survive, but most are aware the business is in a temporary lull - that the demise of Wall Street silly money and the crumbling of DVD are symptoms of a changing rubric that will bring new financing sources, new platforms and new revenues. Some won’t be able to ride it out and will be casualties of the recession, but most will adapt.
If anything, the depression in the business is calling for more sensible pricing of film budgets and thereby acquisition numbers. The paradigm shift cannot be in the finance and distribution sector alone, producers and talent will have to adapt to the new reality. That can only be a good thing.
Meanwhile the appetite for film among consumers is as ardent as ever and not just for studio-made product, as the success of Taken, Knowing, The Haunting In Connecticut, Sunshine Cleaning and of course Slumdog Millionaire has proved.
The Cannes film festival will therefore play a central role in galvanising weary executives to a renewed hope in independent cinema, sustaining the illusion that all is well, or at least that all will soon be well, in their world.
Is it a coincidence that the opening night film, Up - the festival’s first collaboration with Pixar Animation - will be screened in 3D, a device many are heralding as a sign of theatrical renewal? For that matter, who can wait for the first shots of le tout Cannes in black tie and elegant gowns, all wearing 3D glasses?
And as the week goes by and Pedro, Penelope, Quentin, Brad et al troop up les marches du Palais, let’s hope some of the razzle dazzle rubs off on the buyers, sellers and financiers putting together next year’s festival hopefuls in apartments and hotel rooms down the Croisette.