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Shadow of #MeToo and Lingering Netflix Row Delivers a Divided Cannes

With Netflix ousted and the event damned as a haven for sexual predators, the 2018 Cannes Film Festival was never set to be plain sailing, but a helpful distraction came courtesy of Saudi Arabia's decision to end its 35-year cinema ban.

Photo: Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Baffling and beguiling by turns, according to movie critics.
Long Day's Journey Into Night: Baffling and beguiling by turns, according to movie critics.
Photo: Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Baffling and beguiling by turns, according to movie critics.
Long Day's Journey Into Night: Baffling and beguiling by turns, according to movie critics.

Overall, opinion was somewhat divided as to the success or not of this year's Cannes Film Festival. While, for some, it was a damp squib, unable to move with the times in the era of #MeToo and Netflix, to others it was a truly triumphant showing, complete with a strong Competition line-up and a worthy collection of award-winning films.

Among the Cannes attendees, it was largely the US industry executives and film critics who bemoaned the lack of big stars, while maintaining the festival was losing its relevance and its sizzle. To be fair, in the run-up to the event, the omens looked far from good.

For one thing, the festival was widely criticised for its ban on red carpet selfies, while there was also considerable furore over its decision to exclude Netflix titles, largely on the – some would say spurious – grounds that they weren't destined for a French theatrical release. To cap it all, the organisers then infuriated journalists by strategically re-scheduling press screenings to put an end to the kind of dismissive tweets that had pre-empted – and occasionally undermined – previous premieres.

Added in to the mix was the highly public downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the US Producer accused of a string of sexual assaults, and the subsequent female empowerment movement this inspired. Inevitably, Cannes was going to get caught in the crossfire and, sure enough, it was widely lambasted for failing to clamp down on such sexual predators, with even its newly introduced sexual harassment hotline panned for the poor quality of its staff. To make matters worse, it didn't go unnoticed that, of the 18 filmmakers shortlisted for the event's tops awards, only three were women.

As a counterweight to this, many of the European attendees praised the event for its strong programming and, in particular, its inclusion of a number of new names, after several years when only a limited pool of world-acclaimed directors seemed to get a look-in. As a result, although Competition still found space for a number of Cannes veterans – notably Iran's Asghar Farhadi, China's Jia Zhangke and Jean-Luc Godard, the venerable French master – the line-up also had several debutantes, including Japan's Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the French duo of Eva Husson and Yann Gonzalez, and AB Shawky, a first-time Egyptian director.

It was, however, a Cannes regular – Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda – who took the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize. The film that secured him the win, the first in his 20-year career, was Shoplifters, a moving portrait of a makeshift family living on the fringes of society.

Among the other big winners was Spike Lee, with the US director winning the Grand Prix after returning to Competition following a 27-year absence. His winning entry was BlacKkKlansman, the harrowing tale of an African-American detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.

Among other notable winners was Pawel Pawlikowski, with the UK-based Polish filmmaker taking the Best Director for Cold War, a black-and-white love story. In an embarrassingly rare win for female directors, Lebanon's Nadine Labaki took the jury prize for Capernaum, the tale of a slum child who sues his own family.

On the Asian front, Chinese filmmakers were back in force after a prolonged absence. Despite featuring heavily in this year's official selection, they didn't leave with any actual prizes. Among the contenders, however, was Jia's gangland drama, Ash Is Purest White, which played in Competition, Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night, which was selected for the Un Certain Regard section, and Zhang Ming's The Pluto Moment, screened as part of the Directors' Fortnight. It was Zhang and Bi's first appearance at Cannes, with the latter's contribution proving to be particularly divisive.

Part road-trip, part love story, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bi's second feature, baffled some critics when it switched from 2D to 3D at around the 75-minute mark, before finishing with a 55-minute one-shot continuous take. While one critic for Indiewire, the US film review website, described the move as "an audacious filmmaking gamble", Variety deemed it "a lush plotless mood-piece, swimming in artsy references and ostentatious technical exercises".

It wouldn't be Cannes, however, without such contradictions and contretemps. What was more worrying, at least for those attendees on the industry side of the festival, was just how quiet the accompanying market was, a verdict that only the biggest sales agents with the hottest film titles could possibly dispute.

Photo: Ash Is Purest White: A melancholy, mainland movie.
Ash Is Purest White: A melancholy, mainland movie.
Photo: Ash Is Purest White: A melancholy, mainland movie.
Ash Is Purest White: A melancholy, mainland movie.
Photo: Stealing this year’s Palme d’Or: Shoplifters.
Stealing this year's Palme d'Or: Shoplifters.
Photo: Stealing this year’s Palme d’Or: Shoplifters.
Stealing this year's Palme d'Or: Shoplifters.

The Hong Kong companies in attendance, a number of which had noticeably downsized their Cannes sales offices this year, were somewhat sanguine about the quiet corridors. According to one such seller, it's only the Chinese contingent of Cannes-bound film buyers that continues to grow, a delegation that Hong Kong is already in bed with. Despite this, attending the market was still seen as important – if not to see new buyers, then at least to be seen.

Other vendors had a different view, maintaining that, in light of the escalating competition from the streaming platforms, the international market is changing rapidly, with buyers becoming much more flexible. Expanding upon this, Mia Sin, Head of International Sales for Hong Kong-based Universe Films Distribution, said: "Buyers used to focus on just one territory. Now, though, when they spot an interesting project, they try to acquire it for multiple territories. While they may not distribute in all of those territories, they understand the market well enough to spot a potentially lucrative property, which they can then sell on to other distributors."

Acknowledging that the Cannes Marche remains an important event, but one that, as with the other international film markets, has become far more polarised of late, she said: "If you have big titles with big budgets and obvious international appeal, then buyers are going be interested. For smaller films, though, it's far more difficult."

With many of the Hong Kong companies attending Berlin's European Film Market in February and the Los Angeles-hosted American Film Market last November, saying pretty much the same thing, it's not surprising that many local producers have recently been focusing solely on big-budget films.

Dismissing this apparent consensus, Raymond Liu, Hong Kong-based Emperor Motion Pictures' Sales and Distribution Manager, believes that mature film industries still need to produce at a range of different budget levels. Outlining his thinking, he said: "Pretty much all the established Hong Kong companies maintain a mix of high-budget and small projects. This is especially important for companies with their own talent-management divisions, as they can use smaller films to nurture new directors and stars."

Elsewhere in Cannes, mainland buyers appeared even busier than usual, with some 20 films said to have been acquired for Chinese distribution. One of the more notable deals saw 355 – a spy thriller starring Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard and Fan Bingbing – picked up by the Beijing-based Huayi Brothers for $20 million. For its part, Beijing-headquartered Hishow Entertainment took on Everybody Knows, the Spanish psychological thriller that opened this year's festival, while Turbo Films, a fellow Beijing-based indy, opted for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the long-gestating Terry Gilliam comedy that closed the event.

While Chinese buyers were still being ostensibly wooed this year, the mainland may soon see its most-desirable-territory-to-sell-to title usurped, following last month's decision by Saudi Arabia to end its 35-year cinema ban. As a sign of how fast things are moving, the kingdom is already home to two new cinemas – a Wanda Group-backed AMC and the other courtesy of UAE-based Vox Cinemas.

As a result, the country's relatively affluent 30-million strong population have already had their first taste of big-screen Marvel, with both Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War now playing. Given its demographic, industry pundits are already tipping the country's theatrical market to be worth some $1 billion a year in the very near future.

Predictably, Saudi Arabia was the talk of Cannes, with curiosity further piqued when the newly-minted Saudi Film Council hosted its first Pavilion, a chance to meet and greet the international film industry and to outline its plans to establish its own domestic film and TV industry. It also announced plans to offer a 35% cash rebate for international productions shot in country, as well as a 50% rebate on fees paid to local workers.

Clearly confident as to the prospects for the venture, Ahmad Al-Mezyed, Chief Executive of Saudi Arabia's General Culture Authority, said: "Once established, we will leapfrog a lot of the neighbouring regions and become a dominant player in the industry. In effect, we're welcoming the world to Saudi."

At this early stage, the kind of films favoured by Cannes will almost certainly be considered either too challenging on the censorship front or not commercial enough to be released in the kingdom. It is, however, likely that films from South and Southeast Asia will receive something of boost, with Saudi Arabia having a large migrant population from both regions.

Photo: Mainland multiplex-bound: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Mainland multiplex-bound: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Photo: Mainland multiplex-bound: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Mainland multiplex-bound: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

While Saudi Arabia's expat Chinese community is much smaller, Hong Kong's family-friendly action comedies could conceivably find a market there. Chinese producers may also want to take advantage of Saudi's generous production incentives and, as the kingdom builds its own film industry, could offer their expertise – in such areas as action choreography and martial arts filmmaking – in return.

The 2018 Cannes Film Festival took place from 8-19 May 2018.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Cannes

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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