As Cannes concluded, a group of American film critics reflected both on the impressive life of the late Roger Ebert, and their own experiences in covering the influential European festival.
In a panel that took place at the American Pavilion, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune asked panel members – what makes this particular festival different to other North American based festivals?
As a whole, panelists including Wesley Morris (Grantland), Alison Willmore (Buzzfeed), Eric Kohn (Indiewire) [pictured], AA Dowd (The Onion AV Club) and Keith Simanton (IMDB) agreed that Cannes lets people see the films they need to see. As opposed to Sundance and Toronto, AA Dowd highlighted that “there are less films in Cannes, and the competitions are in the morning and evening, which then allows you to fill your day with films in the sidebar sections.”
Wesley Morris added, “It’s programmed for people that love movies. For example, Timbuktu premiered early in the festival, and the next day everyone was talking about it. The festival then scheduled in several repeat screenings throughout the week. Basically, if you don’t get to see a film you want to see, you are not trying hard enough.”
Morris also added that watching films at Cannes could be likened to watching films at a higher cultural altitude since most films are premiering for the first time, and you don’t know if the films will receive US distribution; whereas in Sundance or Toronto, “it’s like watching a film below sea level - you know most release dates before watching.”
When Phillips asked how jet lag and sleep deprivation affected their reviews, silence initially overcame the panelists. But Dowd spoke up, and admitted the long days inevitably lead to a few micro-naps in screenings. He went on to warn the audience to read reviews with “a pinch of salt.” Alison Willmore, Buzzfeed’s first staff critic, reiterated, “If you’re reading festival coverage, chances are some reviewers have fallen asleep in the screenings. That doesn’t get talked about often.”
Morris estimated that nappers in screenings can reach 20% of critics. He cited a crucial scene in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Search where a character has to give a speech to a group of people that should be listening, but are instead sleeping. “I decided to turn around at this pivotal moment and gage who in the cinema was actually paying attention. Sure enough, 20% of the audience, themselves, were snoozing.”
Phillips also brought up Twitter, asking if the tool was of use to critics (and audiences) in Cannes. While Willmore warned that Twitter is permanent, and people on the ground in the US don’t understand the full context since they are not at the festival, Twitter maestro Eric Kohn, who has 15,500 followers, said the opposite: “A lot of people at home reference Cannes hashtags. With a certain degree of restraint, you can plant the bird seed of the review – and also about the festival’s environment.“
Kohn further elaborated, “Here (in Cannes), the trades try to address how the film might sell, but then I am trying to work out what the consumers in the US will think about the film. I really liked the Turkish film Winter Sleep (which went on to win the Palme d’Or), but I know audiences at home won’t know much about it. So when everyone was fighting to get a seat at the last screening, I thought that is something people at home would want to know.”
The Indiewire reviewer summed up by saying Cannes “has pieces of art fighting for attention, that in other US festivals, are not always trying to get noticed.” On the flipside, Morris reminded that Cannes is not just a festival, it’s a buyer’s market as well. He candidly phrased it by saying: “As much of a paradise as Cannes can be, I like to have a daily reality check and walk through the Marche to see what the real movie-going world is like, and to see what different countries want other countries to show in their cinemas. This inevitably has nothing to do with art and everything to do with commerce. To have that happening in the bowels of the Palais is beyond a metaphor.“