Cannes’ awards season relevance was supposed to be kaput. In the years preceding the coronavirus pandemic, there was a growing perception within the industry — particularly in Hollywood — that the world’s most prestigious film festival simply didn’t matter that much anymore when it came to winning Oscars.
But then came Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-sweeping Cannes Palme d’Or winner Parasite in 2019, followed by later Cannes favorites putting in outsized performances at the Academy Awards — Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (2021), a nominee for best director and winner for best international film; Joachim Trier’s comedy-drama The Worst Person in the World, nominated for best screenplay and best international film this year; and, most of all, Japan’s sleeper sensation, Drive My Car, which took home Cannes’ best screenplay honor and went on to get Oscar-nominated for best picture, best director and best screenplay, winning the best international film Oscar.
In short: A lot of Oscars play for a festival with supposedly waning awards reach. So what happened?
Cannes’ skeptics did have compelling reasons for their pessimism. Right around the time Netflix began spending enormous sums in pursuit of Oscars glory, Cannes was forced by the strictures of French distribution rules to ban all streaming films from its competition unless the producers could guarantee that the movies would be given the usual lengthy local theatrical window. A nonstarter for Netflix, this requirement ensured that the streamer would skip Cannes and take its Oscar hopefuls, such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, to the Venice Film Festival instead.
Cannes’ positioning on the calendar also was thought to pose problems. “With Cannes in May and the Oscars in February or March the next year, that’s a very long runway, unless you come out of Cannes very strong,” notes one veteran awards campaign publicist. Launching a prestige film at Venice or Toronto in September makes it much easier to sustain buzz — and marketing resources — through the fall-winter awards season. Cannes’ notoriously tough critics — it’s still the only festival where boos can regularly be heard after press screenings — also have been known to scare off the studios and indie producers of big-budget, more commercially oriented prestige titles (Toronto is the event for them).
With so many structural factors working against it, why has Cannes still managed to deliver a growing number of Oscar contenders?
“What all of the talk of Cannes’ decline was missing is how much the festival means to the international film community,” says Divergent PR founder Josh Haroutunian, an awards specialist who worked on Drive My Car and Parasite. “If you ask almost any great director where they want their film to be, it’s Cannes. It’s still the pinnacle — the festival that gets the most interesting, challenging, beautiful films.”
Other structural changes within the industry have benefited Cannes. Although Netflix dinged the French event by withholding its films, it also arguably helped the fest by broadening the audience for non-English-language filmmaking. One of the happy surprises of Netflix’s business model is how it has encouraged streaming viewers of all ages to become more accustomed to watching subtitled content, as long as it engages them (Netflix’s most-watched original series is the Korean thriller Squid Game).
And the Academy itself has transformed even more. A byproduct of the Academy’s post-#OscarsSoWhite diversity push has been a huge increase in the number of its members who are based outside of America, up from 12 percent in 2015 to more than 25 percent, with 75 countries across six continents now represented.
“The international bent has changed things a lot,” says Ryan Werner, a senior executive at Cinetic Media who has worked on awards campaigns for numerous Cannes-selected Oscar films like Parasite, Another Round, Flee and The Worst Person in the World. “So many of these new international members are filmmakers and film people who have had films in Cannes, so they pay attention to what does well at the festival and there’s a deep connection there.”