Cannes 2021: 5 Burning Questions as the Festival Gets Ready to Launch

·6-min read

Cannes, the world’s most stylish, flamboyant, and glamorous celebration of cinema, returns this week after COVID canceled the 2020 edition. The world is still in the grip of a global pandemic, so this year’s festival should look a lot different than previous iterations, with hand sanitizer and masks becoming the accessory of choice on red carpets.

The fact that Cannes is happening in-person at all feels like something of a triumph. A few months ago, many studio insiders seriously doubted that festival director Thierry Frémaux would be able to pull it off. But the vaccine rollout in Europe accelerated, indie studios came through with some buzzy projects to debut in the Palais and many of those same naysayers are currently getting over their jet lag or working their way through customs. Still, questions remain about what the 2021 version of Cannes will be like.

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How Will Festival-Goers Stay Safe?

This year’s festival was always going to be a wild card thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, which only two weeks ago seemed blissfully in the rearview mirror of domestic industry players. The global outlook, however, began dialing up caution over COVID-19’s Delta variant – which is now the dominant strain in the U.S. and threatens Europe as well, according to health officials.

The festival announced robust health and safety protocols at the top of June, which (quelle horreur) will require all black-tie donning guests at screening and premieres to wear masks, despite theaters being filled to 100% capacity. Those waiting in line for screenings will be required to stand one meter apart, and fan barricades will be paired down and split along the Croisette.

“Our goal is to have an air-tight sanitary protocol that will not cause too much discomfort for attendees. The challenge there is to find a middle ground between safety and comfort,” Cannes general secretary François Desrousseaux said at the time. Furthermore, festival organizers have been working with the French government for weeks trying to relieve a requirement that accredited festival-goers from outside of France receive rapid testing every 48 hours. That didn’t happen, as the Delta variant continues to spread. Attendees are already griping about the spit test they’re being forced to take.

The other outlier is the willingness of Cannes-goers — a mix of VIP talent, executives, sales agents, media and sponsors — to adhere to the strict protocols, especially after a glass or two of Sancerre. We’re not expecting to see anti-vaxx rants from people in formalwear in the aisles of the Grand Palais, but we’re not counting it out.

Are Parties Toast?

Yes, global cinema is the beating heart of Cannes but that medicine has always been served with a side of rarified glamour. The festival is as notorious for Jay Gatsby-style celebrations as it is for churning out Oscar contenders. But will studios, brands and social climbers shell out the cash for these elaborate gatherings? If so, will they get a body count and relevant turnout to justify the cost?

We’ll be curious to see if the usual luxury yachts lining Cannes harbor and pricey evenings at the nearby Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc are as active as in years past. One encouraging sign of life is the enduring amfAR Gala, a starry benefit held at the end of the festival each year, which will be back in force for 2021.

Will Talent Show Up?

Cannes’ red carpet is the most glamorous in all of moviedom. It’s a place for stars to strut their stuff in haute couture as the Mediterranean glistens in the distance. But travel is still difficult in COVID times, requiring people to navigate different quarantine and testing requirements. Further complicating the situation, many top stars are shooting movies in far-flung parts of the world, which means studios won’t be as eager to hold up filming so they can attend a glitzy film premiere. The Cannes lineup means that there will be some A-listers on hand, including “The French Dispatch’s” Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton (who is appearing in five fest films including Anderson’s latest and “Memoria”), jury president Spike Lee and Sean Penn, who is directing his daughter Dylan in “Flag Day.” But there won’t be a splashy big studio premiere to rival the lavish debuts of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “The Great Gatsby” or “Solo,” all of which debuted in the South of France with much fanfare.

Will Studios Spend Money?

The big premieres get a lot of the press attention, but studio suits flock to Cannes in order to buy movies. This year, there’s a lot on offer. Some of the starry projects that will be looking for distribution include “Everest,” an action epic uniting “Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s” Doug Liman and Ewan McGregor; “Marlowe,” a detective thriller with Liam Neeson; and “Foe,” a sci-fi film with Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal, and LaKeith Stanfield. The rise of new streaming players like HBO Max, Paramount Plus and Disney Plus could fuel competition for content, causing prices to spike. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the movies themselves. If studio executives like what they see, expect record-breaking deals. If they’re unenthused, agencies may be hitting the rosé hard.

Will Cannes Play Host to Oscar Contenders?

Cannes audiences don’t have a problem letting filmmakers know how they feel about their latest effort. The Palais crowd has been known to erupt in extended boos or standing ovations, and that makes a Cannes premiere something of a high-wire act for studios and auteurs. The festival also serves as the unofficial start to awards season, with many films successfully capitalizing on a South of France bow to propel them all the way to Oscar victory. Just ask “Parasite,” a 2019 Cannes selection that went on to win best picture, or recent contenders like “Hell or High Water,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Carol,” which were propelled into the race after Cannes viewers embraced them.

This year’s festival could position the likes of “The French Dispatch” for future awards success. Oscar watchers will not just be looking at the reactions to Anderson’s film, they’ll also be reading the tea leaves on the receptions for “Red Rocket,” Sean Baker’s followup to “The Florida Project”; Penn’s aforementioned “Flag Day”; Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” a lesbian romance that unfolds in a 16th century nunnery that should, at the very least, be provocative; and Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou,” a drama about immigration and deportation that sounds urgently topical. That’s to say nothing of out-of-competition titles like Todd Haynes’ documentary “The Velvet Underground” and “Stillwater,” a drama that brings together “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy and Matt Damon. On paper, they all look like potential winners, but we won’t know for sure until Cannes audiences weigh in.

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