Cannes Can't: What the Cancellation of Festivals Means for Hollywood

Bill Murray walks down the steps as he arrives for the screening of the film "The Dead Don't Die" during the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

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The Cannes Film Festival, held every May in the French Riviera, isn't just a venue for important premieres, yacht parties and celebrity-filled red carpets. It's also the home of one of Hollywood's biggest movie markets, where hundreds of independently financed films try to find a distributor.

With Cannes now postponed indefinitely and the prospects for other fall festivals uncertain, Hollywood sales agents are scrambling to find new ways to auction their films and bring them to audiences hungry for new content.

The organizers of Cannes, who previously had postponed this year's festival from May to June, said this week they have canceled the festival's parallel Critics' Week and Directors' Fortnight programs. There are now no plans for Cannes itself this year, since French President Emmanuel Macron has banned large public gatherings until mid-July.

As of now, the three biggest fall film festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto — have not yet canceled or rescheduled their dates, which run consecutively from Sept. 2 to Sept. 20. The trio of gatherings have become the launching point for almost all of the recent best picture Oscar winners, including "Green Book," "The Shape of Water," "Moonlight" and "Spotlight."

The Oscar-winning South Korean film "Parasite" won the Palme d'Or award at Cannes before going mainstream in the US. (John Phillips/Getty Images)

The most recent winner of the top Academy Award, "Parasite," premiered at Cannes. Its domestic distribution rights were sold to Neon in 2018 at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, a massive industry gathering focused on global film sales.

VIRTUAL FESTIVALS

Cannes has an equivalent market to AFM, called the Marché du Film, which will now be held virtually. Sales agents and potential buyers will watch new releases online, and bid on them over email and video chat applications. Similarly, movies that were supposed to premiere at the canceled South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin will now be streamed later this month to Amazon Prime customers.

Josh Braun, whose sales agency Submarine specializes in highbrow documentaries like the Oscar-winning "American Factory," said he's trying to duplicate the energy of a crowded film festival sales screening by holding online viewings more or less simultaneously. He told me via email:

"We are taking a methodical approach to screening films virtually for buyers at pre-scheduled times with the goal of getting reactions relatively quickly from each of them. For the moment, screening on password-protected links is the only way to screen films for buyers during a pandemic. Overall, this is a slower process, but it's working for us."

Braun said he is in the midst of selling the Sean-Penn-in-Haiti documentary "Citizen Penn" (which was supposed to show this week at the canceled Tribeca Film Festival), a documentary about death and grieving called "An Elephant in the Room" (originally set to premiere at SXSW), and the 1968-set documentary "The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show" (which also was going to debut at Tribeca).

One veteran buyer, however, said some filmmakers and sellers have been reluctant to participate in virtual festivals, not only because they fail to mimic the hype and excitement of a live screening but also because honest audience enthusiasm is difficult to discern online.

With the nation's movie theaters padlocked with no immediate prospects of reopening, it's unclear how and when all of the new movies will be released. But one thing is for certain: they won't have a black-tie blowout in Cannes.

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