Why the Cannes Film Festival matters (and how to pronounce it)

The 70th Cannes Film Festival kicks off on May 17.
Cannes Film Festival

For the past seven decades, everyone who’s anyone in the film world — and lots of people who want to be — has migrated to the French Riviera in late May for the biggest event of the year: the Cannes Film Festival, which combines glitzy, star-studded red-carpet premieres with long, exhausting days of screenings, meetings, networking, and, if you’re lucky, parties.

But while most people have a vague sense that Cannes is a big, fancy deal, there’s plenty about the event that’s mysterious to normal, non-famous folks. So as the festival’s 70th installment kicks off on May 17, here are answers to eight of the biggest questions you may have about Cannes.

First things first: how do you pronounce “Cannes”?

Like “can” of beans (but not like “cans” of beans; as with many French words, the trailing s is not pronounced). Technically, because it’s French, there’s a little bit of a difference in the vowel intonation, but most English speakers can get away just fine with “can.”

If you’ve heard people call it “cahn,” though — or even “cahns” — you’re not alone. Plenty of people make this mistake.

But in French, the word con is a vulgar insult descended from the same root as the English c-word. Don’t say that.

How does Cannes work?

Only a few dozen films are selected to show during the festival, often from prestigious directors whose work has previously played at Cannes. Twenty films premiere “in competition,” which means they’re competing for the top Cannes prize: the Palme d’Or(“golden palm”), won in the past by films as varied as Apocalypse Now; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; Sex, Lies and Videotape; Pulp Fiction; and The Tree of Life.

55th International Film Festival in Cannes
Michelle Yeoh, Sharon Stone, David Lynch, and Christine Hakim at Cannes in 2002.
Photo Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The festival’s official programming slate is divided into a number of sections:

  • In Competition: films vying to win the Palme d’Or and a number of other awards and designated by the festival as “arthouse cinema with a wide audience appeal”
  • Un Certain Regard: films with an “original aim and aesthetic” that will likely have limited theatrical distribution but are seeking international recognition
  • Out of Competition: films that the selection committee wants to recognize but that don’t fit the selection criteria some way
  • Cinéfondation: films for students currently enrolled in film school; can’t exceed one hour in length
  • There are also Special Screenings, Midnight Screenings, Tributes, and various events, all of which aren’t competing for the Palme d’Or but are selected to play during the festival.

There are also a number of sections that run parallel to the festival and are programmed by outside organizations during the festival. The most notable of these is the Directors’ Fortnight (programmed by the French Directors Guild), where avant-garde and up-and-coming directors are often spotted.

The Palme d’Or winner — and the winners of seven other major prizes, including the Grand Prix and the Prix de Jury — is picked by a jury of film industry professionals. In 2017, the Feature Films jury president is director Pedro Almodóvar. He presides over an eclectic set of jurors, which this year include actors Jessica Chastain, Will Smith, and Fan Bingbing; directors Paolo Sorrentino, Maren Ade, Agnès Jaoui, and Park Chan-wook; and composer Gabriel Yared.

There are other juries too, which pick films to receive other specialized awards. For instance, Graduation director Cristian Mungiu is presiding over the Cinéfondation and short films jury; Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is one of the jurors. Uma Thurman is presiding over a jury that will select winners from the Un Certain Regard section.

56th International Cannes Film Festival
The Carlton Hotel during Cannes in 2003.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Why is Cannes so important?

Cannes is widely considered the most prestigious film festival in the world, mainly because of its exclusivity and long history of premiering some of the greatest films of all time. The festival has launched the careers of many prominent filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh.

Cannes carefully cultivates its image by programming a limited number of films; by giving awards selected by juries that are stacked with well-known filmmakers, actors, and composers from around the world; and by maintaining the largest film market in the world.

Winning a prize at Cannes doesn’t guarantee commercial or critical success. (Did you see the 2015 Palme d’Or winner, Dheepan? Exactly.) And yet it’s undoubtedly a big deal — it can launch a career — and it guarantees the director’s place in film history. It can also propel a film toward success during awards season, months later; The Artist, for instance, premiered at Cannes in 2011, where star Jean Dujardin won the Best Actor award. It went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture — the first French film ever to win that prize.

But Cannes’s importance extends beyond awards recognition; it also affects which films make it in front of audiences at all. One of the most important events for most Cannes attendees is the Marché du Film, which is the world’s busiest movie market. “Specialty distributors” — that is, movie distributors that specialize in finding ways to get audiences for foreign, arthouse, and other niche films — often make their most important deals of the year at the festival. Filmmakers who hope to find funding and distribution for their films spend their days at Cannes networking with financiers, distributors, and publicists from all over the world.

Just attending the Marché doesn’t guarantee anything for those filmmakers, though — plenty of people leave disappointed. (Steve Bannon and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson were among them last year.) But the chance of distribution draws a huge crowd to Cannes, nonetheless.

Who gets to go to Cannes?

Unlike many other important film festivals (such as Sundance or Toronto), Cannes is an industry-only festival. That means screening tickets aren’t sold to the general public. The festival grants credentials to directors, producers, actors, publicists, distributors, and journalists, who have to apply for a badge and be accepted. Attendees have to flash their badges in order to get into screenings. And wealthy investors and producers — who attend the fest celebrating their premieres or looking for films to fund — host parties, rent lush hotel suites and cabanas, and dock their yachts for parties, contributing to the fest’s famous nightlife.

'Money Monster' - Red Carpet Arrivals - The 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival
George and Amal Clooney attend the premiere of Money Monster at Cannes in 2016.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

But though Cannes is famous for star sightings, especially on the red carpet, there are ways for ordinary people without a badge to see films there too. The festival plays a selection of films for the public on the beach, every night at 9 o’clock. Some film lovers with no other connection to the film industry are able to get a Cannes Cinephile badge by being a member of a film appreciation club. A selection of films by up-and-coming directors play in the Critics’ Week section of the festival, and the festival distributes tickets for these before the screenings; while badge holders get priority, non-badge holders who get in line early can nab them too.

But non-badge holders with the right wardrobe and a little bit of moxie can get into screenings, and even red-carpet premieres, at some of the festival’s biggest theaters (red carpet premieres are strictly black tie, so looking the part is essential). There’s an art to crashing Cannes, and the internet is full of advice.

Have I ever seen a Cannes film? Should I?

Most people with even a casual interest in great cinema have seen a film that played at Cannes. You’ve almost certainly seen one.

In 2015, for instance, both Pixar’s Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road premiered to great acclaim. In 2016, films like Loving, Captain Fantastic, and Hell or High Water premiered at the festival. And over the past 70 years, Cannes has premiered a huge number of the world’s most praised and beloved films, from Taxi Driver and Blow-Up to Barton Fink and Midnight in Paris.

Alternative View - The 68th Annual Cannes Film Festival
The red carpet for Mad Max: Fury Road at Cannes in 2015.
Photo by Tristan Fewings/French Select

That said, just because a film premieres at Cannes doesn’t make it great. Sometimes they even get booed. (More on that below.) But being selected for Cannes is an honor that can help propel a film into other festivals as well. And if you see that a film premiered at Cannes — especially in competition — there’s a strong chance that it’s worth seeing.

Why do people boo so much at Cannes?

In a word: tradition.

Most of the time, it’s highly unusual to hear boos at a film festival — especially at a press screening. But it’s part of the landscape at Cannes, and has been for a long while. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to why. A film that gets booed could be genuinely bad, or it might just have hit the audience strangely. Sometimes a film gets booed at Cannes and goes on to garner wide acclaim. Sometimes it’s dead in the water.

Cannes - 'Marie Antoinette' Premiere
Kirsten Dunst at the premiere of Marie Antoinette, which was booed at Cannes in 2006.
Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images

But it’s just a thing that happens at Cannes. And whenever a film receives boos — or a standing ovation, which happens as well — it becomes part of the film’s narrative. In 2016, Olivier Assayas’s Kristen Stewart-starring Personal Shopper was booed. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was booed, as were two of Quentin Tarantino’s films: Inglourious Basterdsand Pulp Fiction. Even Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was greeted with boos. That great films sometimes get booed at Cannes is so well-known that the Brooklyn Academy of Music programmed an entire program in 2013 called “Booed at Cannes.”

So if you hear that a film has been booed at Cannes, take it with a grain of salt — and read the reviews.

Are they still requiring heels on the red carpet?

In 2015, the dress code at Cannes nearly caused an international incident. While much of the festival is casual, red-carpet premieres have a strict black-tie dress code, which accounts for much of the festival’s reputation for glamour: fancy dresses for women, bow ties for men.

But in 2015, a group of women in their 50s — some of whom had medical conditions — were turned away from the screening of Todd Haynes’s Carol for not wearing high heels on the red carpet. (They were wearing rhinestone flats.)

The backlash was swift and fierce, with many people — including movie stars — calling it sexist. Other stories of women being turned away from premieres for not wearing high heels began to emerge. The festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, tweeted about the incident, claiming that the high heels requirement was an unfounded rumor. But stars and social media commenters noted that the regressive policy was especially ironic given how may of the films focused on issues of women’s equality.

'Money Monster' - Red Carpet Arrivals - The 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Julia Roberts arrives at the Money Monster premiere barefoot in 2016. You go, girl.
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The incident was still on minds in 2016, when Kristen Stewart, Julia Roberts, and Susan Sarandon all made a point of going barefoot or wearing flats at their premieres. So while the black-tie dress code is still very much enforced at Cannes, it’s not likely that anyone will get turned away for not wearing heels — as long as they’re still wearing glamorous footwear, of course.

I’ve been hearing about a conflict with Netflix. What’s that all about?

With their move into original content, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have been disrupting the normal festival system for the past few years, and not just at Cannes — Sundance, for instance, has seen a massive influx of buying from streaming services lately.

This year, two Netflix films were selected to compete for the Palme d’Or: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. Though both films are scheduled to release on Netflix later in the year and will get a limited theatrical release in the United States, neither was slated for theatrical release in France.

The French film world is nothing if not traditional, and the experience of going to the theater is central to that tradition — so central, in fact, that by law in France, movies can’t be put on a streaming service until 36 months after theatrical release.

So when it became apparent that Netflix had no intention of pursuing French theatrical release for either of its Cannes films, there was an outcry, especially from the National Federation of French Cinemas (FNCF).

64th Annual Cannes Film Festival - Atmosphere and Preparations
The yachts on the harbor prior to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images

In response, the festival created a new rule that will take effect in 2018: that in order to qualify to play in competition at Cannes, a film must have theatrical release in France. The festival explained in a press release:

The festival is pleased to welcome a new operator which has decided to invest in cinema but wants to reiterate its support to the traditional mode of exhibition of cinema in France and in the world. Consequently, and after consulting its members of the board, the Festival de Cannes has decided to adapt its rules to this unseen situation until now: any film that wishes to compete in competition at Cannes will have to commit itself to being distributed in French movie theaters. This new measure will apply from the 2018 edition of the Festival International du Film de Cannes onwards.

Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, voiced his displeasure in a Facebook post.

The entire incident will likely be a topic of ongoing arguments at this year’s festival, but it also points to an important fact: The French are very serious about film, and rightly so; the art of cinema owes much of its development to France. So it’s fitting that the country is the home for the world’s most prestigious film festival. And though their commitment to tradition sometimes runs afoul of progressive ideas about dress codes and film distribution, there’s little doubt that Cannes will retain its spot atop the festival hierarchy for years to come.