How the Cannes Film Festival Works

Introduction to How the Cannes Film Festival Works
Bella Hadid attends the screening of "Rocket Man" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/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

Cannes is a very small city, and the business area (for festival purposes anyway) is jammed into a few small blocks.
Cannes is a very small city, and the business area (for festival purposes anyway) is jammed into a few small blocks.

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, stated on the official Web site as an intent to be "a crossroads for world cinema," an apolitical "melting pot of creativity" in which the "linguistic boundaries should fade away in the face of universal images." 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 number-one international market for first-time films, and multi-million dollar deals are signed there every year -- attracts in the neighborhood of 30,000 film industry representatives and countless tourists. The perfect spring weather in Cannes doesn't hurt, either.

The Festival de Cannes draws an immense crowd.

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 cancelled 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

A line forms for an International Critics Week screening, which take place in the Miramar cinema.
A line forms for an International Critics Week screening, which take place in the Miramar cinema.

Nearly 2,000 films are submitted to the Cannes Film Festival every year, and the selection committee watches every one of them. Only about 50 feature films and 10 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.

Official Selection

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 the Competition, Out of Competition and Un Certain Regard sections, 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. Besides those requirements, the film must "respect the aims of the Festival as defined in Article 1" of the Cannes Rules and Regulations:


The spirit of the Festival de Cannes is one of friendship and universal cooperation.

Its aim is to reveal and focus attention on works of quality in order to contribute to the progress of the motion picture arts and to encourage the development of the film industry throughout the world.

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.

Village International: Tent-city outside the Palais.

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 Web site.

Cannes Awards

David Lynch gives an impromptu interview on the beach.
David Lynch gives an impromptu interview on the beach.

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 2006 festival included the Chinese film director Wong Kar-Wai (serving as president), the Italian actress Monica Bellucci, the British actress Helena Bonham Carter and the American actor Samuel L. Jackson. In 2019, the jury president was Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Each year, the Croisette is draped with ads for festival and upcoming films.

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 Web site.

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.

For more information on the Cannes Film Festival, including details on International Critics' Week and the Directors' Fortnight, as well as travel information, check out the links on the next page.

Last editorial update on May 16, 2019 06:03:48 pm.

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