As Screen International’s Cannes critics’ jury grid approaches its 40th year, Nikki Baughan looks back on its origins and impact for filmmakers, industry and the festival.

Starting life in 1984, decades before the phenomenon of social media-fuelled hot takes, Screen International’s Cannes critics jury grid could be considered ahead of its time. It was the first (and remains the only) English-language daily trade to collate critical opinion by an assembled jury of international film critics who watch and rate every single film screening in that year’s Competition section. The resulting grid continues to provide festival­goers — and, more specifically, industry readers — with an immediate overview of professional reactions to key films.

While the grid has since evolved into a trusted resource, first reactions were not quite so positive. “Initially I recall there being mixed feelings about it, certainly among critics,” recalls Terry Ilott, Screen International’s editor in 1984. “Who wants their considered and carefully weighted judgments reduced to just one, two or three stars? And who wants to bump into an irate filmmaker on the Croisette?

“There were also misgivings in the creative community,” he continues, “not just because all their hard work was to be extolled or dismissed in so rudimentary a fashion but because it amplified the spirit of competition, which was bad enough already. The festival authorities weren’t pleased; there was the small matter of the influence it might exert over their jury.”

The festival need not have worried about any undue influence. Across the entire 39-year history of the jury, only 13 grid-topping films — less than 40% — have gone on to win that year’s Palme d’Or, including Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas in inaugural year 1984, Laurent Cantet’s The Class in 2008 and, most recently, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite in 2019.

“The festival authorities soon realised that it intensified the buzz around their competition,” recalls Ilott. “Filmmakers, however, were split. Those who were doing well as the competition progressed were obviously happy; those who were not were less so.”

Making an impact

For the myriad international critics who have contributed to the grid, involvement has always provided a chance to make a genuine mark. “Whether you like the film a lot, a little or not at all can easily be translated into ratings,” notes longtime grid juror Michel Ciment, French critic and current editor of film magazine Positif. “A rating always gives the temperature of the critical response, and then comes the arguments to justify the ratings. When you are trusted, you become part of the film industry because you send people to cinemas. On the whole, even if it is a difficult task, I believe in hierarchy when it comes to art.”

“Instant responses to festival films as a singular numerical rating is no problem at all,” agrees Hans Beerekamp, who was Screen’s Netherlands correspondent in the early 1990s and regularly contributed to the grid until his retirement from film criticism in 2002. “But one is very aware of possible biases that stem from festival overload. [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, for instance, tends to be underrated because it is too slow for festival consumption.” (Tarkovsky’s film won Cannes’ grand jury prize in 1986, when Roland Joffé’s The Mission took the Palme d’Or.)

Indeed, the critics jury has often been out of step with the Competition jury, either being dazzled by films that have not featured in any festival prizes or marking down those that received accolades. And nobody gets special treatment: familiar names appearing at the bottom of the grid over the years include Peter Green­away (8 1/2 Women, 1999), Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, 2002), Bertrand Bonello (House Of Tolerance, 2011), Takashi Miike (Shield Of Straw, 2013) and Gus Van Sant (The Sea Of Trees, 2015), who had won the Palme d’Or in 2003 for Elephant.

This is precisely why, for many analysts and observers, the grid presents a valuable point of view. “For every professional Cannes-goer, the jury grids in the daily trades are extremely important and influential,” says Beerekamp. “Films shown in Competition are on the whole extremely dependent on press reactions, and one star can even mean a sizeable difference in the negotiations for a minimum distribution guarantee during the festival.”

“It’s one of the first things I look at each morning at the festival,” agrees Jonathan Rutter, longstanding UK film publicist and executive director of film at London-based PR agency Premier. “It’s very useful to see star ratings from non-English-­language critics. Awareness of Competition titles is high anyway, but if a film from a little-known director suddenly shot to the top of the grid, that would be a useful tool in drawing broader attention. Most of the influential critics go to Cannes, so for a sales agent to be able to point out to a potential buyer that an important critic has given the film four stars can be very useful.”

The Cannes jury grid is entering its 40th year but remains an essential tool in an ever-­increasing sea of critical commentary. As professional film criticism has shrunk, the fact the grid includes some of the world’s top critics all on one page means it has become one of Screen International’s most popular features. “The grid is a distillation of key professional opinions,” observes Rutter. “It can be amusing to see national differences and extremes of opinions — the black crosses and the four stars.”

Cannes Jury Grid 1984-2023

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“The directors of Cannes’ competing films must receive a report card from Screen in the morning after their film’s official premiere, whether they like it or not. And that report card doesn’t necessarily match the award results. Rather, when the report card comes out too well, it often feels rather ominous. That was the case with Burning.

“Being invited to the Cannes closing ceremony and receiving an award is like getting an honourable medal that embellishes the film. On the other hand, I think getting a high score from a panel of highly reputable critics is like getting a great health certificate. Even if it’s not visible, it’s a sign of a film’s high level of health and longevity that it will stand the test of time.”