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Rex Weiner

Rex Weiner

Posted May 12, 2009 | 01:10 PM (EST)

Trade Journos No-Shows at Cannes


When the 62nd Cannes Film Festival opens tomorrow, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter will have virtually called a halt to a longstanding cross-Croisette daily news war. Both trades will still be publishing their usual special Cannes Daily Editions, and competing for stories, but under unprecedented limitations:

• While fielding a handful of reporters under the command of its new Editor-in-Chief, Tim Gray, Variety will for the first time in more than a decade be producing its daily Cannes edition entirely from its LA offices, cutting costs by paying overtime to a skeleton crew in LA working a two-week nightshift from Opening Night to the May 24th Palme d'Or awards ceremonies.

• Of the fifteen people THR registered with the festival press office, only four are reporters and two are film reviewers, with Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Guider holding down the fort in LA where half the show-daily will be produced.

The fact that the venerable entertainment industry trades are sending fewer reporters to Cannes marks the end of one of the juicier assignments in the field of journalism. As this former Variety reporter can assure you, reporting on Cannes from a cubicle on Wilshire Boulevard just won't be the same as sitting poolside at the Hotel du Cap with a notepad in one hand, a gin-and-tonic in the other, listening to Harvey making deals from the next lounge chair, and watching the latest box-office hottie just over there smoothing on sunblock.

But while the cutback in trade reporting from the field may be yet another symptom of the media's overall malaise, it also marks a tipping point for the Cannes Film Festival itself. The importance of Cannes has diminished in the film world over the years (when was the last time a Palme d'Or winner was also a hit at the US box-office?), and now the lack of serious coverage by industry journalists may prove to be its death knell.

That coverage used to be very serious, indeed. Transporting entire production crews, multiple editors, phalanxes of reporters, reviewers and ad sales reps and putting them all up at back-street hotels (dingy, but still not cheap!), the two trades basically decamped en masse from LA annually to set up fully-functioning newspaper offices. In addition to publishing daily satellite editions of The Hollywood Reporter and Variety from the first morning of the two-week festival to the last, staffs compiled two weekend "Bumper" editions, fat enough with ads to require perfect-binding.

Printed locally on the Cote d'Azur and distributed before daybreak in stacks piled in the lobbies of every hotel from the Majestic to the Du Cap, the Cannes Dailies are eagerly consumed with croissants and coffee by hungover studio executives, wily international sales agents and distributors from every country on the map, all hungry for tips on which movies have sold for how much to whom, which big stars and directors have announced new projects, and which studios are making split-rights deals with sales companies.

The ads reaped millions for the trades, many pages purchased by "indie" producers desperate to sell distribution rights to their slates of finished, partially completed, or "in-pre-production" films. The ads themselves are viewed as news by Cannes attendees, communicating not only which films the sales companies are selling, but which sales companies are doing well enough to buy a double-truck, or a four-color cover. Crucial information at Cannes!

For while the public focuses on the glitz and glamor of the Festival de Cannes, the inside story has always been the Marché du Film, or Cannes Film Market. An organized branch of the Festival unique among the world's 4,000 film festivals, the market is officially located in the Riviera, a vast circular hall specially constructed for the purpose behind the Palais des Festivals. The marketplace is also active in luxury hotel suites of the Carlton, Majestic, Martinez and other five-star palaces up and down the Croisette where international sales execs set up temporary offices and schedule meetings with buyers every half-hour.

Away from the paparazzi frenzy of the red carpet, buyers like Pathé from France and Toho-Towa from Japan hunker down with sellers like Summit, The Weinstein Company, the international arms of the major studios and a hundred others, carrying on a grubby and often cutthroat, but highly lucrative and essential trade in distribution rights for movies produced in every language from nearly every country in the world. At the bottom of the market are B-movies -- commodities sold like bushels of wheat or hog maws -- that go straight to video in South Africa and the 3AM slot on a Helsinki cable channel.

At the top of the food chain: movies with "names" -- Hollywood stars with global recognition ensuring that box-office receipts, TV sales and home video revenues in Germany, Brazil, Korea or Kazakhstan will add up to more than the distributors in those territories paid for those rights. Pre-buying rights to films has always been the way large-scale "independent films" like Rambo: First Blood, Lord of the Rings, and the Terminator series (funded partly or wholly outside the major studios but studio-distributed in the US) became international hits and huge moneymakers for all involved. Foreign sales have traditionally financed such films, to the tune of 50% or more of a film's total budget.

Trade reporters assigned in past years to the Cannes beat have gone toe-to-toe, competing for the inside scoop on these deals, delivering information that no other news outlet covers and thereby facilitating the business flow that allows movies to be produced and distributed all over the world. Mainstream press covering Cannes, such as LA Times and the New York Times, have always missed the story.

But if the trades have ruled at Cannes and other film markets, their dominion has dissipated with the advent of the Internet, and the proliferation of online sources of business information, including leagues of bloggers as well as the Marché du Film's own website (Cinando.com). And as even The Wall Street Journal recently noted, the news itself bodes ill: money from foreign markets for film rights has dried up with a depressed global economy and the rising quality and popularity of local language filmmaking providing cheaper competition to big-budget Hollywood fare. Even a new film starring Johnny Depp is having a hard time attracting investment from foreign distributors.

And where are the action stars of yore? Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Seagal and Van Damme, et al -- whose global recognition could sell a B-movie based on a sexy poster alone for A-level prices -- once ruled the Croisette. Alas, now they are either out of action or out of steam.

So Cannes advertising revenues for the trades this year are down as much as 20-30%, according to sources at both papers. Between Cannes and the awards season, this downward trend has hit The Hollywood Reporter and Variety hard, and layoffs over the past year decimated the editorial and sales forces on both sides of the street.

With tight economics curtailing the business reporting at Cannes, what stories will we see over the next two weeks? Some red carpet fanfare from the Festival's first 3-D digital animated opening night film, Up (Disney/Pixar)... Festival favorites Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) and Almodovar (Broken Embraces) all competing for the Palme d'Or... and perhaps producer Graham King will be able to sell his Johnny Depp movie (The Rum Diaries, based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel), allowing that film to eventually come to a theater near you.

But news from Cannes will mainly be conveyed by the tabloid media trumpeting the glittering parade of international stars and celebs up the red carpet of the Palais des Festivals to screenings of films mostly by obscure directors with unknown actors. Many of the films will play superbly on the big screen at the Palais, but are unlikely to find audiences in the US, or a distributor to even try... a story that renders the Cannes Film Festival in its 62nd year, like some fabulous but faded star from another era, sadly irrelevant.