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For first-timers and newcomers to Cannes, the festival can be overwhelming – so many screenings, so many people, so many parties! To help critics and journalists navigate the wild world of the French Riviera in May, we asked IndieWire Executive Editor – a longtime Cannes attendee – to give us his top tips for those heading to the festival this year.
Cannes is the most exciting film festival in the world — a dense, hectic convergence of the global film industry along a small stretch of land by the French Riviera — but that chaos can be overwhelming, tiring, and often lead to frustrating scenarios. Ushers can be rude to you. Lines get long. It’s hot. Any attempt to see several movies in one day and squeeze in other activities, whether it’s writing on deadline or attending a few parties, will result in an insane 12-hours–plus schedule that can lead to levels of exhaustion you never knew existed. But that’s Cannes! The history of this place, the deep love for cinema as an art form, and the sheer range of countries and cultures stuffed into a fairly palatable lineup is unparalleled. This festival is in love with its legacy, and if you give yourself over to the rough ride and do the best you can, you’ll fall in love with it, too.
The color-coded Cannes accreditation system tends to relegate newcomers to lower tiers; don’t take it personally. For most of films in the “Official Selection” at Cannes — generally speaking, Competition, Un Certain Regard, Cannes Classics, and Special Screenings — you will have to wait in a line that corresponds to your badge color. That usually means yellow and blue badges in one line, pink badges in another line, and “rose pastille” (pink with a yellow dot) and white badges in another line. If you aren’t in that last tier, you should always plan to line up at least an hour early.
Even if you’re really judicious about lining up early, chances are pretty strong you still might not get into a movie you want to see. Sometimes, one screening starts so soon after another that you won’t be able to line up early, anyway; in other situations, your accreditation may force to wait far back in line and by the time it’s your turn, the theater has filled up. In the amount of time you waste throwing a tantrum (and trust me, you’ll see some tantrums), you could be finding a much more productive use of your time. Check the schedule, see if there’s anything else screening in the near future, and take a chance on it. You’ll have plenty of options. Which leads me to the next item on this list…
This is very important: The range of non-English–language cinema at Cannes is staggering, especially if you’re a journalist from North America, where so few non-English–language movies open throughout the year. Take this as a responsibility: Yes, you want to see the high-profile, buzzy titles in Competition, but if you have any flexibility, look for unknown variables in the other sections. By covering them, you are playing a role in pushing them to more audiences (and potentially distributors as well). Fortnight (otherwise known as “Quinzaine”) and Critics’ Week (“Semaine de la Critique”) are as essential to the Cannes experience as the main selection. They’re both located a little further down the Croisette (in the opposite direction of the Palais) at the JW Marriot and the Palais Stephanie, respectively. Fortnight tends to be filled with a handful of notable directors who, for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut in the Official Selection; it’s also a neat opportunity to discover new directors from around the world, and edgier films that may or may not find their way to the U.S. (although, if you choose to write about them, that could play a role in the outcome). Critics’ Week only screens first and second features, so it’s one of the best places in Cannes to discover newcomers. And ACID, a younger section that has gained traction in recent years, is a smaller lineup that tends to showcase low-budget films with very different sensibilities than you’ll find at the rest of the festival.
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Almost nobody at Cannes is familiar with every name in the lineup, but just because they’re new to you doesn’t mean they’re new to cinema, or even to the festival. Spend some time getting to know the filmmakers, watch their earlier work if you can, and read up on their backgrounds. Cannes is a terrific starting point for learning about some of the most revered auteurs working today, but if you go into one of their new films cold, you may be missing out on some valuable context that will help you assess their work in your own output.
The festival tends to launch new 4k restorations from around the world, and while some of them may be familiar to you (for example, this year’s The Shining restoration presented by Alfonso Cuarón), the international scope of this section tends to mean there is a lot to explore, including new archival projects from Africa and Asia that could wind up screening at repertory theaters around the world. Catch them first at Cannes and help get the buzz going as this section works to expand and correct the historical canon of film history.
Many journalists tend to grouse about the Cannes press office because the festival’s many tiers of accreditation and long lines stress them out. But the truth is that this festival has plenty of staffers whose job is to help journalists do their work. You just have to ask: The press office is located on the third floor of the Palais, and if you’re confused about the schedule or anything else, just go there and find someone who can help you.
Cannes is associated with black-tie extravagance, but you don’t need any fancy outfits to attend press screenings. Having said that, if you’re the ambitious sort and want to try and score tickets to a public screening or work the door at fancy parties, you will need a nice outfit. For guys, that means black tie is essential. Women have more expansive options, but unfortunately it’s also a bit of a crapshoot, and there are occasions when the flexible door policy at a party can lead to sexist showdowns: If an usher decides to take issue with your shoes, they may choose to bar you from entry. So, fair warning on this one, and choose your outfits wisely if you choose to attend anything formal. Better yet: As a first-timer at Cannes, stick to those press screenings, make some friends, and enjoy your casual dinners. Oh, about that…
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The American Pavilion is located just behind the Palais and a terrific place to get work done, order some coffee, and hang out with some English speakers. It’s not hard to get access there by purchasing an extra badge (or working out an arrangement with the publicity contact for the Pavilion). But if you’re from another country, look for that Pavilion instead. The white tents are lined up all along the beach and they’re all nice opportunities to take a breather when the festival madness gets overwhelming.
Packed days can lead to exhaustion. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and pack energy bars or nuts if you can. But be wary of food options near the Palais, unless you don’t mind surviving on baguettes for two weeks. If you’re staying somewhere that allows you to buy groceries, stock the fridge on day one.
If you’re a social butterfly, you’ll make friends fast, and some amazing professional contacts as well. Late at night, people gather outside the Grand Hotel to toast rosé and talk shop. But there are also endless parties strung along the beach that go until the wee hours of the morning, and they provide some nice networking opportunities, as well. But consider your daily priorities and keep your eye on the clock. If you can afford to sleep in the next day, that’s one thing; but if you have a packed schedule coming up, save the hard-partying antics for another night. I promise the opportunities will still be there.
The Cannes market is located in the basement of the Palais. It’s a remarkable window into the global state of the film market, where distributors, sales agents, and producers present new projects to territories around the world. Some of them never get made. Wander floor when you have a free moment and marvel at the sheer range of imaginative posters for international projects (some of which will never get made). It’s a perfect distillation of the moviemaking industry beyond the constraints of Hollywood. And if you’ve ever considered working in the industry outside of journalism, the Marché is a perfect place to make some connections.
Eric Kohn is the New York-based Executive Editor & Chief Critic at IndieWire, where he has worked since 2007. Kohn travels to film festivals around the globe, interviews filmmakers, and managed IndieWire’s network for professional film critics, the Criticwire Network. He also launched the Critics Academy initiative, a series of educational workshops for aspiring entertainment journalists, and teaches film criticism at NYU. He is the editor of “Harmony Korine: Interviews,” published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2014. He is the 2018-19 chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and served as a member of the jury for Critics Week at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Follow Eric on Twitter @erickohn.