How the Cannes Film Festival Works

By: Julia Layton  | 
Helen Mirren, Cannes Film Festival, red carpet
Helen Mirren attends the "Jeanne du Barry" screening & opening ceremony red carpet at the 76th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 16, 2023 in Cannes, France. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

In the world of film, the Festival de Cannes — known to many of us as the Cannes Film Festival — is the largest international showcase of cinematic art. In the world of the yet-to-be-discovered filmmaker, the Cannes Film Festival is a godsend. It's not like the Oscars: Anyone can submit a film, and every submission has the chance to be viewed by representatives of the international movie industry.

Every year, for 12 days in May, the small city of Cannes in southern France turns into a meeting place for cinema's players, would-be players and the people who report on them. If you don't fall into any of these categories, your chances of attending a film screening at the festival are almost nonexistent, but you can gawk at the stars and bask in the atmosphere to your heart's content.


Artistically, it's an anything-goes film showcase that has launched the careers of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. It boasts such diverse events as black-tie screenings and midnight movies on the beach, and it has grown into a fairly intricate system of main events, sidebars and awards. In this article, you'll find out what goes on during the Cannes Film Festival and why it is so unique.

The Cannes Experience

town of Cannes
The city of Cannes in France gets ready for the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The unique combination of ground-floor, first-time moviemakers and international stars creates an environment that is unlike any other. On the one hand, you have the very grand, art-above-all philosophy of the Cannes Film Festival, as stated on the official website: "The organization puts its profile and platform to work in giving film the space to shine, ensuring a huge diversity of voices, sensibilities and talents are showcased. Showing faith and commitment to hearing these voices rise up to bear witness to their times is what has gradually shaped the Festival as we know it today." On the other hand, you have the celebrities strolling down the red carpet at the main screening, the press snapping pictures at every turn, and festival guards who have been known to refuse admittance to people whose attire doesn't meet their standards.

This intense meeting of art, stardom and finance — Cannes is the No. 1 international market for first-time films and multi-million dollar deals are signed there every year — attracts in the neighborhood of 80,000 film industry representatives and tourists, plus 4,000 journalists. The perfect spring weather in Cannes doesn't hurt, either.


The international feel of the festival, the focus on erasing national boundaries in the name of cinematic art, goes back to the political mood of the 1930s. The fascist regimes in Europe were gaining influence and this influence was affecting the art world. The main international film festival at that time was held in Venice, Italy, and in 1939, a French film was the shoe-in for first place. Instead, a German film and an Italian film — both with political ties — shared the prize. The French, British and American judges resigned in protest.

In response to what was perceived as the political corruption of the film festival in Venice, France started its own. The Festival International du Film began in 1939, though that one was canceled after a single screening (William Dieterle's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") because Germany invaded Poland and France joined World War II. The festival gave it another try in 1946 and it stuck. Now known as the Festival de Cannes, what began as a protest has become the most widely recognized film festival in the world.


Cannes Film Selections

Around 2,000 films are submitted to the Cannes Film Festival every year, and the selection committee watches every one of them. Only about 56 feature films and 14 short films are chosen to be part of the Official Selection, the main body of work that is the center of the festival. Several more films are shown as opening and closing films and during the "sidebar" screenings of the Directors' Fortnight and International Critics' Week.

The films that make up the Official Selection are divided into several categories:


  • Competition: Feature films and Short films
  • Feature Films Out of Competition
  • Un Certain Regard
  • Cinefondation

For a film to be considered for Competition, Out of Competition or Un Certain Regard, it must have been produced during the 12 months leading up to the festival, and it can't have been presented in any international context, which includes being shown in any other country besides the one in which it was produced; being shown in any international film festival; and being shown on the internet. For Competition, the rules also state that the film must have been released theatrically in France.

Short films can't run more than 15 minutes. Feature films can run as long as they want. One of the selections for the 2003 Un Certain Regard, Marco Tullio Giordana's "La Meglio Gioventu," was five-and-a-half hours long.

Films that are screened Out of Competition are generally those that the Cannes selection committee really wants to recognize but don't quite fit the Competition criteria. Un Certain Regard is often used to display first-time films, experimental techniques, and progressive trends showing up in the work of established directors but not yet recognized in mainstream cinema.

The Cinefondation category, established in 1998, is exclusively for film students currently enrolled in film school. These movies can only be fiction, either live action or animation, they can't be longer than one hour, and anything produced in the 18 months preceding the festival is fair game. Like the other sections of the Official Selection, a film can only qualify for Cinefondation if it has not been presented on an international scale.

To find out about the films featured in the Directors' Fortnight, International Critics' Week, Feature Films Out of Competition, Un Certain Regard and Cinefondation, see the official Cannes website.


Cannes Awards

Ruben Ostlund, Ruben Ostlund  Palme D'or, Cannes
Ruben Ostlund (R) poses with the Palme D'or award for "Triangle of Sadness" while Tarik Saleh (L) poses with the Best Screenplay award for "Boy from Heaven" during the 75th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 28, 2022, in Cannes, France. hilip Rock/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There are two official juries at the Cannes Film Festival: the Feature Films Jury and the Short Films and Cinefondation Jury. Voting is by secret ballot and majority rules. Members of the juries cannot have a film in competition.

Jury members are invited by the same selection committee that chooses the films. The official jurors are all people in the film industry, and more recently are almost exclusively directors or actors. It is an honor to be invited to sit on one of these juries — an even greater one to be jury president. The committee invites actors and directors it wants to recognize for great achievement. Jury members for the 2023 festival include Swedish director Ruben Ostlund (the jury president), Zambian director Rungano Nyoni and American actor Brie Larson.


There are lots of awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but the biggest of them all is the Palme d'Or, which is awarded to the best feature film and the best short film in competition. In general, when people refer to "the Palme d'Or," they mean the one for feature films.

The Camera d'Or is awarded by a separate jury to the best first-time film in the entire festival, including all sections of the Official Selection, the Directors' Fortnight and International Critics' Week. By Cannes standards, a "first-time film" is at least an hour long and its director has never before made a movie of that length for the cinema or TV.

One of the coolest things about the awards at Cannes is that they can be a little bit different every year. Juries have the freedom to add awards as they see fit, depending on the movies in the Official Selection that year. In 2000, "La Noce" by Pavel Lounguine won an award for the best ensemble of actors; in 1998, "Velvet Goldmine" by Todd Haynes was awarded the Prix de la meilleure contribution artistique au Festival International du Film — the prize for the greatest artistic contribution to the festival. In 1991, Samuel L. Jackson won a best supporting actor award for his role in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" — the first supporting actor award presented at the Cannes Film Festival. To view the entire archive of Cannes Film Festival awards, visit the official website.

While it is an extremely big deal to win an award at Cannes, there are other prizes to be had too. The screenings themselves are a major aspect of the festival, a place for new films, new artists and new artistic approaches to be seen by the people who matter in the film world. The Marche du Film at Cannes is the biggest international film market, and whether or not a movie wins the Palme d'Or, it has the chance of attracting the attention of critics and producers who can launch careers in the movie industry. Especially for an "indie" film, an invitation to Cannes can be a huge boost, and a win usually means serious dollars from producers who want to get in on the next big thing.


Cannes Film Festival FAQ

Where is the Cannes Film Festival held?
The Cannes Film Festival is held at the Palais de Festivals et des Congres in Cannes, France.
Can you go to Cannes Film Festival?
Cannes is solely for film professional and A-list celebrities, and the events are restricted. The general public cannot attend.
What does the Festival de Cannes celebrate?
Cannes film festival is the largest international showcase of cinematic art in the world.
How do I submit to the Cannes Film Festival?
Anyone can submit a film to the Cannes Film Festival via the online application for the annual festival.
What is awarded at Cannes Film Festival?
There are a number of awards given out at Cannes, but the most prestigious of the bunch is the Palme d'Or ("Golden Palm"), which is awarded to the best film.