Great movie, but will it play in Beirut? UK films, US dollars and Lebanese hype

David Lister's Cannes Diary
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THE POPULATION of Cannes is 60,000. During the film festival it swells to 200,000. The bad news for the Riviera "care in the community" patrol is that many of the supernumeraries are film critics. They are an odd bunch, and in Cannes one begins to understand why.

Films have to be watched at the less than aesthetic hour of 8am before one can emerge blinking into the bright sunlight of the Croisette. Then follows one of the more bizarre daily rituals, the press conference with the stars.

Here it emerges that film writers are even more star- struck then everyone else.Lebanon, for some reason, produces the most extreme examples of sycophancy. Last year, a woman from Beirut asked Charlton Heston: "Do you realise you are a god in my country? You are my father, my mother, my sister and my brother." Yesterday the Lebanese contingent was more subdued, asking Sean Connery: "How do you manage to be so stunning opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones?"

Mr Connery's chivalrous answer - "she is so radiant you have to respond" - managed to put the smile back on his co-star's face. But he is a dab hand at these occasions. Lengthy questions in French elicited the same response - "c'est la vie", a line that actually managed to fit virtually any question, be it about film funding, being stuck with the Bond image, or the stresses of kissing beautiful women for 40 years (though to the latter he did add in English "it's a tough job but someone's got to do it").

Only when a Canadian questioner compared Scottish nationalists to Quebec separatists did Mr Connery really warm to the occasion, spouting: "Labour was the dominant party in Scotland and they were as corrupt as the Tories in London. Now there are four parties all fighting, which is much more healthy. Now you will see a terrific renaissance in Scotland. All I have ever maintained is that Scotland should be equal to every other country in the world."

The Welsh, but strictly non-political, Ms Zeta-Jones looked uncomfortable. The Lebanese contingent looked flummoxed.

Mr Connery was one of the few Britons in town sufficiently off-message to dispel rumours of a renaissance in the British film industry. "There is no British film industry as such," he declared. "There is no foundation; it's mainly American money." This wasn't what the film minister, Janet Anderson, wanted to hear as she arrived in Cannes to open the British Pavilion. British ministers tread warily here ever since the Tory arts minister at the time, Stephen Dorrell, was nearly lynched for saying the actress Jeanne Moreau was "a great Frenchman". Ms Anderson did her best to fly the flag without any faux pas, but Mr Connery was not alone in speaking the truth. The great Cockney director Alan Parker, filming Angela's Ashes for Universal, previously Polygram before its Canadian takeover, also admitted that the company behind his film and behind the allegedly British Working Title Films "is all run by Americans now, but they are great blokes to work with".

Stewart Till, the British film supremo who is president of Universal, revealed to me the late-night angst involved in opening a film. With Notting Hill, the plan is that it becomes the biggest British film of all time, outgrossing the pounds 250m made by Four Weddings and a Funeral. When it opens on 500 screens in Britain next Friday, Mr Till will stay up to 2am to receive box office figures from every cinema. "We're just like America now," he says. "The first weekend is crucial. It makes or breaks a film. A new Inspector Morse on telly or a heatwave and life could get very serious for us."

The following week it opens in America where, says Mr Till, "the word of mouth is great". He is giving me lunch so I am too courteous to tell him that that morning's Screen International, the Hollywood bible, has denounced the film, saying: "If you are waiting to be surprised you might as well keep your eyes closed during the entire film... all the eccentric supporting characters in the film are essentially the same ones as in Four Weddings. It is heartening to see that the British film industry has now got so much self-confidence that it is already emulating the Americans and remaking its recent hits." There, at last, is praise for the British film industry - of a sort.

Every journalist in Cannes wants the film festival scoop: the quirky or outrageous titbit that will astonish the world. And I thought I had it. Meeting the American David Kosse on the day of his appointment as chairman of Universal Pictures UK, I asked him what his extra curricula interests were. "I do a bit of sport," he replied, "particularly backwards walking." Each your heart out John Cleese and the ministry of silly walks. Here was a movie mogul who would enter a Leicester Square premiere in unmissable style. I asked him more about his curious hobby. Did he do it alone? No, the whole family joined in. Could one walk backwards at speed? He smiled pityingly. "I think we have a misunderstanding here," he said. "It's backwoods walking that I do."

It's easy to feel inadequate in Cannes, where even the rubbernecks out to catch a glimpse of the stars wear designer labels and you have to be beautiful rather than wealthy to gain admittance to a premiere or a party. The parties, meanwhile, have to find new ways of competing with each other to attract the beautiful people. The London media club Soho House has chartered its own boat. But it may be out of its league. One of the smaller American independent studios is having its party tonight on a boat, climaxing in invitees being whipped, galley slave style, in the small hours by a leather-clad dominatrix - and waking one up effectively for the 8am screening.