How I Made My First Feature Film
CHAPTER SEVEN - The Cannes Film Festival
Now that I had my packaged film project I needed to let everyone know about it. But not having any sort of track record in feature films resulted in a lot of closed doors. I just didn’t know what I should do next. How could I possibly reach these important people if they wouldn’t return my phone calls? I had to find a way to quickly make my project visible to these hundreds of people. I'd been to one of the early American Film Markets in Los Angeles, but the next one was a year away. The answer was the Cannes Film Festival.
About 30 miles West of Nice by toll road, Cannes is simply the French version of Miami Beach. Dozens of glossy new hotels and grand old palaces are shoe-horned together along the curvy seaside boulevard called La Crosette. Middle-class pensioners and aristocratic-looking widows are Cannes’ chief year-round residents. They slowly walk their poodles to the vegetable market beyond the Rue D’Antibes, buy a tomato or two, and walk back to their condo overlooking the Mediterranean. Next morning, the Cannes sanitation department hoses all the dog poop down the sewer and a new day begins. During June, July and August, the whole of France goes on vacation and all the over-priced hotels along the boulevard are filled to capacity. But except for the occasional dental convention, Cannes was always a sleepy medium-sized town with a lot of vacant hotel rooms and empty sidewalk cafes during the non-Summer months. So, after World War Two the city fathers decided to do something to fill those empty rooms during the Spring. Voila! The Cannes International Festival du Film was born. The annual festival is simply an entrepreneurial fabrication of the Cannes Chamber of Commerce and not the French Ministry of Culture as they’d like you to believe.
I might have to travel thousands of miles, but all the people I needed to talk to would be located in one place and easily accessible. I printed up a bunch of flyers and about 50 copies of the script, synopsis and treatment. After a few hasty French lessons, I packed all of this together with stack of Timothy Bottoms 8x10’s and headed to the Cote d’Azur.
Turns out I didn’t need the French lessons - everyone spoke English. I arrived in Cannes with about $200.00 left to live on after paying a Los Angeles publicist $500.00. If you’ve never been to Cannes before and you haven’t got anyone to show you the ropes, hire a publicist who’s worked at Cannes. If you don’t, you won’t know anyone. A good publicist will make sure you meet the right people and get you invited to the right parties and screenings. The best ones will steer you away from the wrong people. There are 2-3 major PR companies like the UK-based Dennis Davidson and Hollywood’s Rogers and Cowan. Plus several dozen independent publicists to choose from.
My first impression of Cannes was that it looked like a dozen traveling circuses had simultaneously come to town. Movie posters hung from every lamp post, wall and store window. The famed Carlton Hotel was graced with a 30 foot tall bikini-clad James Bond girl who’s legs were spread wide enough to let you walk between them and through the front door. The Hollywood trade papers printed thick, Cannes-only, daily versions which were slipped under your hotel room door in the morning. But while the famous folks stayed at the Carlton, the Majestic or the Grey D’Albion, I slipped into the lesser known Hotel du Nord.
Conveniently located directly across from the Cannes train station, my room would shake and the hallway lights would flicker as the 3:00AM express train blew through the station. In time I learned to wake up before it arrived so I wouldn’t be shocked out of a good night’s sleep. I could trace the room’s electrical wiring through the torn and yellowed wallpaper. But, at $20/night I really couldn’t complain too much. Two blocks away, the Carlton was charging $400.
In Cannes, the well-known distribution companies turn their luxurious hotel suites into temporary sales offices, while the other mainly non-American companies, rent convention-style booth space in the “Marche,” or Film Market in the basement of the “Palais” where the major films are premiered in competition. Amidst all this confusing glitter a sales agent is forced to do almost anything to get people’s attention. It boils down to who can shout the loudest. Imagine a thousand filmmakers and stars carefully watched by 10,000 members of the world’s press and you have an idea of the annual scene that is Cannes.
I vividly remember the year when members of the French electricians union staged a violent protest. Dressed in white coveralls with huge red lightning bolts embroidered on their backs, thousands of them marched in lock-step along the Croisette. Several cars were set on fire and the national police showed up in armored vehicles brandishing automatic weapons. And where was the world’s press during this volatile situation? They were huddled around a table at the Carlton Hotel asking questions of “Benji the Wonder Dog.” “Do you have a girlfriend, Benji?” “Ruff, ruff,” the small dog would answer.
Most of my days were spent audaciously walking into the distributor’s hotel-based sales offices and pitching my project to whomever would listen. Even secretaries. I didn’t care. What could they say, “No?” I was able to meet and talk with all those people who wouldn’t return my phone calls in California. After a week of knocking on doors, my publicist and I decided we needed something else: a party to “announce” the film. The date was set and I arranged to rent the living room of someone’s condo for 3 hours with a hundred bucks wired from home. After the publicist had developed a guest list and printed up invitations, I went to a supermarket and bought wine, cheese and crackers. The French don’t like things cold, so finding the ice was the hard part! Then, still dripping in sweat from the effort, I greeted the early arrivals at the door.
Out of 80 invited, about 20-30 showed up. The publicist artfully introduced me to anyone who was even faintly important or useful. Absolutely none of big players showed up. I made no “deal” at Cannes that year. But I had introduced my project to many sales agents and I’d learned a LOT in the process. I flew home with a long list of people who were interested in my project and I felt confident that one of them would come through.
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