The Cannes International Film Festival is one of the biggest gatherings of celebrity star power on the planet, covered by media worldwide, with half a dozen red carpet walks daily and a never-ending tide of designer couture. But at its heart, the famous festival is a trade show where, in swank hotel rooms and villas, deals are cut for roles, distribution, and most importantly “backing” (the cash required to make new movies).
This year’s event was held from May 15-26 in Cannes, and I was there. It was my first time at Cannes and, being generally uninterested in celebrities and ignorant in the ways of Us and People magazines, I had thought of it as akin to the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby or even Oktoberfest in Munich – an event or experience that you become part of by attending. In terms of spectacle, it was exactly what I expected; but in terms of interaction, it was not.
Those who go to Cannes because they love celebrities will never be disappointed, as practically every actor with a film screening — from Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) to Robert Redford (All Is Lost) — attends the festival to promote it. But for every A-lister, there are dozens of Hollywood unknowns, from executives to editors, plus countless employees of the many fashion and luxury-goods companies basking in entertainment glamour. Then there are media professionals and tourists. Cannes is a small place — and as the festival progresses, it becomes increasingly overrun.
Just 10 years ago, my driver at Cannes told me, tickets to screenings were so abundant she would take her mother and friends. Today, tickets to screenings can run $5,000-$20,000 on the secondary market in the U.S. Seeing a single movie, with no party, cocktails or gala, typically costs more than a Super Bowl ticket, and every hotel for miles — good and bad — is sold out.
The pecking order of the four top hotels in Cannes is InterContinental Carlton Cannes first, then Grand Hyatt Cannes Hôtel Martinez, Hôtel Majestic Barrière de Cannes and JW Marriott Cannes, which are all located on the main drag overlooking La Croisette, the town’s famous seaside promenade. All are filled with stars, but nonetheless, a top tier travel agent with connections can get you a (very pricey) room. I asked one such agent to the stars, Chad Clark — owner of Scottsdale’s Chad Clark Travel, a Virtuoso agency — about this process.
“We specialize in providing access to ultra-exclusive experiences for the ultra-rich,” Clark said. “The Cannes Film Festival is no exception. We can arrange yachts, helicopters, and anything else one desires. Through our sources, we can get rooms and suites at the Carlton, and the Martinez. We also have access to THE parties: Vanity Fair, [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen’s yacht party, amfAR Cinema Against AIDS, the Chopard soiree, and the closing ceremonies.”
Clark won’t quote prices to non-clients, but the keywords are “ultra-rich.” I stayed at the charming boutique Hôtel Belles-Rives in nearby Cap d’Antibes, which was wonderful (and, unlike the Cannes options, right on the Mediterranean Sea), but even this would have been impossible had it not been practically taken over by Moët & Chandon, the champagne partner of the amfAR ball, who helped arrange my visit.
Like hotels, parties have a pecking order, with Allen’s bash being the most elite and the amfAR (The Foundation for Aids Research) gala consistently earning status as the highest-profile gathering that’s a must-attend for every actor, model, musician and designer still in town when it signals the close of the festival. Although amfAR was the only big party I attended, and at $10,000 a seat, it is actually the best buy since tickets are on sale to the public — most parties are invitation-only with gray market access running up to $50,000.
The black-tie amfAR gala is held at the famed Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in nearby Cap d’Antibes, the top luxury hotel on the entire Riviera; during the Festival, it’s practically closed except to stars. It begins with a red carpet walk past a sea of photographers, for stars and unknowns alike, then there is an outdoor cocktail hour packed with big names. This year, Leonardo DiCaprio, Heidi Klum, Nicole Kidman, Harvey Weinstein, Kenneth Cole, Roberto Cavalli and Paris Hilton were all there, and Sharon Stone was the emcee for one of the grandest charity auctions on earth, where $25 million was quickly raised. During dinner, Dame Shirley Bassey sang her hit song “Goldfinger” and Duran Duran played a four-song set.
Unlike Sundance or other film festivals with multiple venues around town, there is just one main theater where movies are shown consecutively, from about 11 a.m. to midnight: the Grand Théâtre Lumière. All screenings are black-tie affairs with a red carpet walk by the stars, but the biggest films get the prestigious 7 p.m. screening, which is when I was lucky enough to see Redford’s All Is Lost (my only film ticket), which turned out to be among the most critically acclaimed of the festival. I recommend it.
If you have connections or very deep pockets, Cannes delivers plenty of glamour and show business dazzle. But for the many visitors going to see stars, there is also plenty of hassle and perhaps disappointment, as most remain cloistered in their suites between screenings and parties, which they are whisked to in blacked-out sedans. Most of downtown is closed to cars, traffic everywhere else is terrible and streets are constantly jammed with humanity, many waiting for star sightings; few celebrities would try to walk the streets, pop into a restaurant or visit one of Cannes’ many nightclubs.
The festival has grown hugely in stature and size, yet Cannes remains a very small town that is not really well equipped to hold it, and most of what I imagined as its appeal goes on behind well-guarded doors. It is far from user friendly, but if celebrities and Hollywood glamour are your passion, it is hard to imagine a more concentrated dose of spectacle than in this small, posh seaside town on the French Riviera.
Photo Courtesy of Cyrille Margarit/Artman Agency