It’s that time of year again. As you read this, the world cinema glitterati as well as a few lucky film critics will have just finished parading down the red carpet of the Croisette for the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. A number of eagerly anticipated new films from the crème de la crème of arthouse filmmakers are competing for the gleaming Palme d’Or, arguably the film industry’s most prestigious award after the Oscar. These include Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, Almodovar’s Broken Embraces and Jane Campion’s Bright Star. Other notable films premiering out of competition are Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell – a line-up to make any film buff terribly upset that they are not going.
But what purpose does the festival really serve? It is an important showcase for independent and arthouse cinema, as well as a major market for filmmakers to sell their product to distributors. It’s also a chance for film people to enjoy each others’ worthy company for a couple of relaxing days, feeling very pleased with themselves. Since the festival’s beginnings the red carpet has of course offered glamorous photo opportunities for aspiring stars looking for a bit of publicity and a career boost. Media coverage of Cannes may be extensive but cameras are usually turned off when the real festivities begin. Celebrities’ lavish yachts play host to drinking that puts students to shame, and drug binges paid for by studio money, with barely-legal models cavorting with smug grey-haired studio heads in the hopes of a movie part. Snapshots from these exclusive soirees might not make the front page of Variety, but insider accounts confirm that decadence and debauchery are rampant behind the scenes at Cannes.
Out of all film festivals Cannes may be the biggest and most famous, but it wasn’t the first. That honour goes to Venice. The world’s oldest film festival, it was founded in 1932 as an ‘international exhibition of the cinematographic art’. After decades of being overshadowed, particularly by Cannes, Venice has recently managed to again raise its profile, making July an important month in the festival calendar. In the past couple of years it has served as a launchpad for such successes as Vera Drake, Brokeback Mountain and The Wrestler.
When it became clear that Mussolini’s regime was exerting too much influence over the Italian festival in the 1930s, the appalled French government decided to respond by starting a similar festival in France. The first edition of Cannes was to take place in 1939, but postponed by the war it didn’t get underway until 1946. Since then a plethora of stars have left their handprints in the cement outside the Palais des Festivals, and classics such as La Dolce Vita, Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction have carried off the Golden Palm. Also, it was exactly half a century ago that the French New Wave sparked off what was to become a cinematic revolution with Truffaut’s 400 Blows winning the main prize and Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour premiering at the 1959 edition of Cannes.
Perhaps more interesting to the average film geek are festivals like the Berlinale and the Toronto International Film Festival, as they both open their doors to the general public. Admissions to the Berlinale exceed 400,000 annually, while Toronto doesn’t fare that much worse with 300,000. Both still see droves of celebrities swarm in and a huge film market take place every year. Toronto in particular has become the first promotional stop on many an Oscar campaign trail, having helped to create an awards buzz in September for films like Crash and Slumdog Millionaire.
No festival year would be complete, however, without Sundance, taking place in January and the biggest gathering of American independent filmmakers. What 25 years ago started as a cold and quiet weekend in the Utah mountains hosted by Robert Redford has since seen a media whirlwind blow in, becoming a hotspot for celebrities in winter-wear and anyone wanting to add a bit of indie cred to their name.
In case you’ve had enough of Scarjo and Brangelina and would rather concentrate on the, erm, cinematographic art, there are hundreds of smaller festivals that take place all over the world and often cater to a more specific interest ranging from animation to documentary, ethnic to gay cinema. The UK is home to a plethora of festivals too, such as the Edinburgh International Film Festival and London’s Raindance Festival for independent film. Even Nottingham’s very own Broadway hosts a number of small festivals through the year, focusing on horror, shorts and silent films.
Even some of the stars appear to be fed up with the endless red carpets. Disillusioned with the commercial glitz of the big ones, Tilda Swinton and Joel Coen have founded a festival in Swinton’s Scottish hometown of Nairn that vows to simply focus on the movies. Price of admission? A tray of homebaked cakes.