Never mind a black tie, what about good films?: Cannes is failing in its role as an international showcase for European cinema, argues David Aukin

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER Cannes has come and almost gone. They come round faster these days. The gaps between festivals are nightmares of strange encounters with people who claim to have met you 'last year in Cannes'. But the great thing about Cannes is that mostly everyone is there. In this small seaside town, and indeed along one small section of this town, lives, breathes and walks for 10 days each year most of the film industry. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else. The Oscars, in contrast, are a one-day event, attended only by nominees and their cohorts, and totally dominated by Hollywood. Other festivals have their niches, but none matches the attraction of Cannes.

Now, though, there is a feeling that Cannes' crown is slipping, that its prestige is not what it was, and that it may soon no longer be an indispensable part of the film-maker's calendar.

The first and most easily identifiable problem is born of its very success. The place has become overcrowded. Nowhere else would I be prepared to queue for an hour to see a film for which I already have my ticket, and be generally insulted, bullied and harried before I'm able to take my seat. But that is the daily experience for anyone going to see one of the films in competition.

And they expect us all to dress up in a black tie. Mind you, regulars know that this 'black tie' requirement is interpreted almost literally, to the point where, providing you're wearing a black tie, you could probably get in naked.

So unpleasant has the experience become, that it is a badge of achievement how few films you manage to see during the festival. Thereby hangs another problem. The focus of Cannes used to be the films. It has become less so. This is serious because Cannes has always been a festival rather than a market - a place to see films rather than simply to buy and sell them. When the deals are more interesting than the films, then the festival is in trouble. This is now happening to Cannes. It's still the best place to do business, but it's no longer the best place to see films. The catch is, once people no longer go there to see films, it may cease to be a good place for business. Its mystique depends on it being able to attract the most interesting films from all over the world.

But Cannes' ability to attract the best films is already questionable. And would it recognise them if they were on offer. For Cannes to retain its pre-eminence as a film festival it has to be a cultural melting-pot, a place where Jerry Lewis meets Jean-Luc Godard and Clint Eastwood sits on the jury, as he has done this year, with Catherine Deneuve. But the films just aren't there any more.

Partly this has to do with timing. Once the film has been shown at Cannes, you want to get it out as quickly as possible to the general public. But the summer releases are largely films for families and children and these are rarely the films you see at Cannes. So many films shown first at Cannes must wait five or six months before being put out in the autumn. There has been talk of switching Cannes' dates, but the implications of any change are huge, not least in the impact on other festivals, especially Venice.

Meanwhile, European cinema is under siege. It's not only a problem in Britain, but all over Europe screens are increasingly dominated by American pictures. Audiences vote with their feet and their money to see American films. There has been much debate about this within the European Union, culminating in the French taking a Custer-like last stand at the Gatt talks. If that victory is not to be short-lived, we have to do more than retain the existing European subsidy system. We have to use that system to make popular films.

This, you might think, is where Cannes has a pivotal role to play as the showplace where the best European films can appear in competition with those from America. Cannes should be the launch pad for propelling European films into cinemas, at least around Europe, if not the world. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen.

There is a culture of the kind of films chosen for festivals - not just Cannes - which suggests that those who select films for such occasions are the people who have least idea about what makes a popular film. By instinct and training, these people will always prefer the art house films. This division between art house and popular films is fatal to the European film industry.

The glory of film is that, unlike other art forms, such a division is unnecessary. The great artists of the cinema, Gary Cooper, Jean Gabin, Greta Garbo, or directors such as Hitchcock, Eisenstein or Kubrick, all enjoyed genuine popular recognition. The choice of films this year for Cannes will reinforce the division between art house and popular films.

Let me give an example with which Channel 4 has a strong connection. Two films opened earlier this year in the same week in the United States: one, The Hudsucker Proxy, disappeared quite quickly; the other, Four Weddings and a Funeral, went to the top of the US box office; no prizes for guessing which film was invited to open the Cannes Film Festival. The Coen brothers, who made The Hudsucker Proxy, are fine film-makers and no one can seriously question their inclusion in the festival. But at a time when we need European films to do well in the world market, this is also the moment to celebrate Four Weddings, and Cannes, if it is to lead a European revival, might have recognised this.

Cannes is still wonderful. The setting is unique, the food good, the atmosphere heady and, by the end, a few more films are financed, reputations made and lost, friendships renewed and deals struck. I can't wait for next year.

The writer is head of drama at Channel 4 and is responsible for commissioning Channel 4 films.

(Photograph omitted)