How Cannes works, from the standing ovations to the juries to the Palm Dog

By AP News


The Cannes Film Festival is hallowed ground in cinema but understanding its unique landscape can be confounding

France Cannes 2024

CANNES, France (AP) — The Cannes Film Festival is hallowed ground in cinema but understanding its unique landscape can be confounding.

The Côte d’Azur festival, which kicked off Tuesday, is a 10-day ballet of spectacle and film where even the photographers wear tuxedos, standing ovations are timed with stopwatches and movies tend to be referred to by the names of their directors — “the Almodóvar,” “the Malick,” “the Coppola.”

From the outside, it can seem mad. From the inside, it can be hardly less disorienting. But grasping some of Cannes' quirks and traditions can help you understand just what is unspooling in the south of France and what, exactly, a Palm Dog is.


The short answer is that Cannes is the largest and arguably most significant film festival, and few care more deeply about the art of cinema than the French. This is where cinema was born and it’s where it’s most closely guarded. It’s not a coincidence that to enter the Palais des Festivals, the central hub, you must climb 24 red-carpeted steps, as if you’re ascending into some movie nirvana.

Cannes is also singularly global, attracting filmmakers, producers and journalists from around the world. It’s a little like an Olympics for film; countries set up their own tents in an international village. Because Cannes is also the largest film market in the world, many who come here are trying to sell their movies or looking to buy up rights. Deal-making, though not quite the frenzy it once was, happens in hotel rooms along the Croisette, aboard yachts docked in the harbor and, yes, on Zoom calls.

But aside from being a beacon to filmmakers and executives, Cannes is a draw for its shimmering French Riviera glamour. Since the days of stars like Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot, Cannes has been renown as a sun-kissed center stage for fashion.


Originally called the International Film Festival, Cannes was born in the lead-up to World War II. Venice had launched the first major film festival in 1932, but in 1938, fascist influence on Venice was pervasive. The French government in 1939 chose the tourist destination of Cannes as the place for a new festival — though because of the war, the first edition wasn’t held until 1946. This year’s festival is the 77th edition.


The hive of activity is the Palais, a massive complex by the sea full of cinemas with names like Buñuel, Bazin and, the granddaddy, the Grand Théâtre Lumière. This is where the red carpet runs in Cannes, nightly hosting two or three world premieres beneath a glass canopy flanked by rows of photographers. Festival cars ferry stars and directors who are ushered down the carpet and up the steps. Unlike most movie premieres, there are no reporters on the carpet.

Filmmakers and casts instead face questions from the media the day after their premieres, at a press conference preceded by a photo call. The press conferences can be atypically newsy, too; after Danish director Lars von Trier declared “I am a Nazi” at a Cannes press conference in 2011, he was named “persona non grata” by the festival for years.

Interpreters translate live for headphone-wearing reporters. Inside the Palais, bleary-eyed attendees are treated to gratis espresso.

Down the Croisette, the oceanside, palm tree-lined promenade of Cannes, there are regal old hotels like the Carlton and the Martinez from where festival attendees flow in and out, interviews might be happening on balconies as autograph-seeking fans gather outside in throngs. After-parties are typically held in clubs across the Croisette, by the beach.


Unlike public festivals like Toronto or SXSW, Cannes is industry-only and largely out of reach for most moviegoers. That doesn’t stop the desperate, tuxedo-clad ticket seekers who hold signs outside the Palais on the chance someone has an extra, or the photo-takers who stand on small ladders near the red carpet.

Cannes is rigorously hierarchical, with a system of color-coded badges regulating access. If you hear about a film being booed at Cannes — even Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” was famously jeered before winning the Palme d’Or — it's usually at a press screening.

The premieres, largely attended by industry professionals, are where the prolonged standing ovations take place. But this, like many things at Cannes, is a bit of stagecraft to boost the mythology. After the credits role, a cameraman rushes in, with his footage fed live to the screen. He goes down the aisles, giving the audience a chance to applaud for the director and each star. No one is just cheering for a dark movie screen.


Cannes hierarchy is in the lineup, too. Attention focuses most on the films “in competition”: usually around 20 movies competing for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top award. Past winners include “Apocalypse Now,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Parasite.” Last year, it went to Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall.” Winners are chosen by a jury of nine that changes every year. This year’s is presided over by Greta Gerwig.

Competition is only one section, though. Many high-profile films might play out of competition, as “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is this year. Un Certain Regard gathers a lineup of original or daring films. First and second films play in the sidebar Critics’ Week. There are also midnight selections and the recently launched Premiere sidebar, which also takes some overflow for films that didn’t fit into competition. Restorations and documentaries play in Cannes Classics.

And down the Croisette, separate from the official selection, is the Directors' Fortnight or the Quinzaine, a parallel showcase launched in 1969 by a group of French filmmakers after the 1968 Cannes was canceled.


There are many other prizes, too, even an unofficial one created by journalists called the Palm Dog (sadly, not the Palme D'Og), for the best canine in Cannes. Last year, that honor went to Messi, the “Anatomy of a Fall” pooch.

Created in 2001, the annual award and its spinoff categories is decided by a jury of reporters. Past winners have included Uggie from “The Artist” (2011) and Sayuri, who played the heroic pit bull in “Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood” (2019).

As for the reigning champ, Messi captivated the carpet on opening day this year, in town again as a correspawndent of sorts for French television.


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