COLUMN: Facts and history of the Cannes Film Festival



If you are a casual follower of the movie industry, there's a good chance that you've probably heard of, but don't know much about, the Cannes International Film Festival.  You probably have seen the fashion report on E! and a few red carpet interviews on Entertainment Tonight or Extra.  First off, you've got to say it right to sound cinephile-cool.  "Cannes" pronounced "CAN" and not "CANS" (Thanks, Wikipedia).  That will help right off the bat.

After that, I'm presenting this article on the facts and history of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival to help the unfamiliar and uninformed movie fan sound like one of the 1% of cinema aficionados.  This year's Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13-24 and will be its 68th competition and is hosted by French actor Lambert Wilson ("The Matrix Reloaded").  Read on to see what all of the fuss is about and earn some cool points.


Began in 1946, the "Festival de Cannes" has become the most prestigious and publicized film festival in the world.  The festival is invitation-only and not open to public, generating an annual red carpet gathering and paparazzi frenzy surrounding the famous attendees who make up a who's who of the film industry, from major stars to the top directing talent.  It is an important venue for international filmmakers to not only compete for noteworthy awards, but showcase and market their work for purchase and wider release from deep-pocketed film distributors.  Due to the decadent Cannes, France setting and the invitation-only nature of the event, the festival generates enormous media attention and exposure.

The films that are part of the festival are organized into various sections called "programmes."  Movies are shown either "in" or "out" of competition and garner the title as "Official Selection," a badge of honor you've likely seen on a movie poster, a trailer, or a DVD cover.  Those invitation-only movies "In Competition" (limited to only 20-25 films) are competing for awards while those screened "Out of Competition" are there for the marketing and media attention.  For example, at last year's Cannes Film Festival, box office giants and well-known movies like "How to Train Your Dragon 2" were shown Out of Competition, while future Oscar contenders and winners, like "Foxcatcher," "Two Days, One Night," and "Mr. Turner" were featured In Competition.  In addition to the competition feature films, other works are shown in Special Screenings, Short Film competitions, a "Cinefondation" of film school works, and culturally-important selections making up the "Un Certain Regard" category.

All of the films are screened a famous movie houses in and around Cannes and are judged by a pre-appointed international juries, made up of a wide range of respected and highly-regarded artists, performers, and filmmakers.  Being chosen is considered a great honor, Last year's international competition jury included notaries like Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Willem Dafoe.   This year you've got Isabelli Rosselini as the Jury President along with four other international directors and actors.  Additional juries are also created for the short film, film school, and cultural categories.

Those juries hold sole responsibility for choosing award winners.  The top prize and highest honor is the Palme d'Or.  Second place receives the Grand Prix and the third best feature film receives the Jury Prize.  All of those awards are given to the winning film's director.  Other major awards are given to Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Short Film.  Additional minor awards are given to student films, young talent, innovative works, and best first feature.


Though it's cardinally important for the European filmmakers, it is quite the "feather in the hat," so to speak, for American works to be screened, both "in" or "out" of competition as Official Selections of the Cannes Film Festival.  That attention, respect, and exposure grows more if they go on to win awards.  Even though the competition is dominated by European works that you've never heard of, there are plenty of winners that you have heard of.


"The Lost Weekend" (1946)-- Directed by Billy Wilder, it is only one of two films ever to win both the Palm D'Or and later the Academy Award for Best Picture.  (IMDB)

"The Third Man" (1949)-- Directed by Carol Reed and ranking #57 on the AFI's "100 Years... 100 Movies" list.  (IMDB)

"Marty " (1955)-- Directed by Delbert Mann, it is only one of two films ever to win both the Palm D'Or and later the Academy Award for Best Picture.  (IMDB)

"La Dolce Vita" (1960)-- Directed by Frederic Fellini, it was voted the 6th greatest film of all-time by Entertainment Weekly magazine.  (IMDB)

"M*A*S*H" (1970)-- The ensemble directed by Robert Altman and inspiration for the popular and long-running TV series.  (IMDB)

"The Conversation" (1974)-- Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it lost to Coppola's own "The Godfather Part II" at the Oscars that year.  (IMDB)

"Taxi Driver" (1976)-- Directed by Martin Scorsese and ranking #52 on the AFI's "100 Years... 100 Movies" list.  (IMDB)

"Apocalypse Now" (1979)-- Also directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the only American (and one of only six directors total) to win the Palm d'Or twice, it ranks as #28 on the AFI's "100 Years... 100 movies" list.  (IMDB)

"Sex, Lies, and Videotape" (1989)-- Directed by Steven Soderbergh (the "Ocean's 11" series, "Out of Sight," "Contagion," "Haywire," "Magic Mike"), his breakout work.  (IMDB)

"Wild at Heart" (1990)-- Directed by David Lynch of "Twin Peaks" fame and starring a young Nicolas Cage back when he was an actor and not a caricature.  (IMDB)

"Barton Fink" (1991)-- Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," "True Grit," "Inside Llewyn Davis").  The brothers are the only three time winners of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.  (IMDB).  

"The Piano" (1993)-- Directed by Jane Campion (last year's Jury President), it went on to win three Oscars that year (Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion.  (IMDB)

"Pulp Fiction" (1994)-- Directed by Quinton Tarantuno and probably the most commercially famous movie on this list.  Its legend started at Cannes.  (IMDB)

"The Pianist" (2002)-- Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Best Actor Oscar winner Adrien Brody.  (IMDB)

"Farenheit 9/11" (2004)-- Documentary directed by Michael Moore, it went on to become the highest grossing documentary of all-time and an Oscar winner.  (IMDB)

"The Tree of Life" (2011)-- Directed by Terrance Malick ("The Thin Red Line") and starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture.  I also lambasted it in my own review four years ago.  (IMDB)  (full review)

"Amour" (2012)-- Directed by Michael Heneke, this went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress, and winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  (IMDB)


* = won the Oscar later that year for the same role

Edward G. Robinson, Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy, Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson, Jon Voight (*), Jack Lemmon (twice), William Hurt (*), Forest Whitaker, James Spader, John Turturro, Tim Robbins, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Penn, Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Christoph Waltz (*), Javier Bardem, Jean Dujardin (*), Bruce Dern, and Timothy Spall


* = won the Oscar later that year for the same role

Bette Davis (*), Sophia Loren, Katharine Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, Vanessa Redgrave, Joanne Woodward, Sally Field (*), Helen Mirren (twice), Cher, Barbara Hershey (twice), Meryl Streep, Holly Hunter (*), Bjork, Penelope Cruz, Juliette Binoche, Kirsten Dunst, and Julianne Moore


Once again, the momentum from exposure at the Cannes Film Festival held in May can resonate and catapult a movie or performance to the top of awards buzz long before the typical Oscar race begins at the end of the year.  Of the nineteen films in competition last year, six of them, including eventual Best Picture nominee "Foxcatcher," went on to be nominated for Academy Awards.  That number might increase when "Clouds of Sils Maria," which finally hit U.S. cinemas this year can qualify for this year's Oscars, particularly for the lead performances of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.  Simply put, this is where the buzz starts.

As frivolously "elitist" as it may appear and likely is, the Cannes International Film Festival bears incredible importance on the given year's landscape of artistic cinema.  It is very much worth keeping an eye on.  Soon, another article will follow this one, charting the features and attractions debuting at this year's Cannes Film Festival.   Also, later, stay tuned for announced winners from the competition.  Enjoy the movies and glamour this month, or, as the French would say: "profitez des film et du glamour!"