It has been the way of the world since time immemorial. When the steam engine first puffed its way on to the tracks, people were frightened out of of their wits and called it a black belching monster. When a wise man said the earth was round, he was ridiculed by all those who firmly believed that it was flat. Any invention or discovery or even change – like what the Cannes Film Festival chief, Thierry Fremaux, has made to the Press screenings - is bound to draw a flak.
Many or the most vocal among the 4000-plus critics who gather on the French Riviera every May to write on the biggest cinema event in the world are upset that a decades-old privilege has been snatched away from them.
Fremaux told a French magazine last week that the morning Press show of a Competition movie – starting from the Festival's 71st edition running from May 8 to 19 – will be scheduled for the evening and will coincide with the black-tie, Red Carpet gala for the public, including the industry. This way, the film will be truly a world premiere. The Press, though, will have a separate auditorium.
And, the 7 pm Competition title for the Press -- which is normally screened for the public three hours later at 10 pm -- will henceforth be slotted the following morning. Which means the Press gets to see it a day after the public show or world premiere.
This arrangement is meant to protect the interests of movie producers, directors, actors and others from negative or harsh reviews. For years, filmmakers have felt that Cannes' movie critics, unlike their tribe in Berlin or Venice, have been legendary for their vitriolic comments, which have marred the prospects of a film and also robbed the actual gala evening world premiere, happening after the Press shows, of the surprise element. For, the reviews are already up on the websites, and they have said what they have to.
Fremaux has also been angry with bloggers, tweeters and those dashing off quick reviews. He has been contending that this will mean the absence of a well thought-out review, a considered review. Moviemakers will be the actual sufferers here.
The Press – used to watching Competition films much before the others at Cannes – is angry. The Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema (French movie critics) said in a letter issued on Monday that Fremaux should have explored other solutions – like imposing embargoes on reviews, like they do in Berlin and Tokyo.
But Berlin has a hands-on Press department, which keeps a close watch on who is writing what. I remember a story of mine attracting the attention of the authorities, because it was somewhat critical. And this happened years ago, and one is told that such supervision has become stricter now. In any case, Berlin has far fewer journalists. Ditto, the Tokyo International Film Festival, where most of the critics are Japanese and are disciplined enough not to flout an embargo.
The Syndicat added that the screenings shakeup would have “a negative impact on the quality of work produced by French and international journalists. The conditions will lead some journalists to renounce conducting interviews and do them before having seen the movies or even encourage publications to reduce their editorial coverage of the Festival by sending fewer journalists and critics."
But an unmoved Fremaux in response to these arguments, quipped in his class style that he could “wait 24 hours to read an article in a newspaper in print... I belong to the generation that respects the Press and doesn’t think a tweet is the same thing as a serious article published by a critic. “
One is sure that a legendary critic like Derek Malcolm, now 86 and still going strong, would be happy with Fremaux's new policy. One remembers him struggling, while working for the Evening Standard a few years ago, having to turn in a review within 20 minutes of a film drawing to an end. “My reviews can hardly be informed or have any kind of depth”, he used to lament.
Whether one likes it or not, reviews do matter, especially in a Festival like Cannes – whose biggest attraction (that is getting bigger) has been its market, and the sales guys there are really hawkish. They do wait for a review. They may have their favourites among the tribe, and if a review is disparaging, the future of the movie concerned may get seriously affected.
Here is one example. In an essay in a magazine, Another Man, director Vincent Gallo accused the late film critic, Roger Ebert, of destroying The Brown Bunny (2003) at Cannes. Ebert described the movie as the worst in the history of the Festival. The film, about a motorcycle racer (Gallo) embarking on a cross-country expedition while haunted by the memories of his ex-girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny), caused outrage over an explicit scene between the lead actors. The segment went on to become one of the most controversial sex scenes in movie history.
Gallo wrote: “It is outrageous that a single critic disrupted a Press screening for a movie chosen in the main Competition at such a high profile Festival and even more outrageous that Ebert was ever allowed into another screening at Cannes. His ranting, moaning and eventual loud singing happened within the first 20 minutes, completely disrupting and manipulating the Press screening of my work. Afterwards, at the first public screening, booing, laughing and hissing started during the open credits, even before the first scene of the film. The public, who had heard and read rumours about the Ebert incident and about me personally, heckled from frame one, and never stopped."
Ebert's reactions had a bad bearing on The Brown Bunny. It is possible that Fremaux had such impactful criticism in mind when he announced the changes in the Press screenings.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic who has been covering the Cannes Film Festival for 28 years, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)