Inside Film

Film festivals are being threatened by coronavirus – but do we really need them?

This weekend’s South by Southwest festival has been cancelled and there is talk of Cannes being shelved in May, but although a strong argument can be made that festivals are indeed anachronistic, they are more important than ever, says Geoffrey Macnab

Friday 13 March 2020 07:00
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Adèle Haenel, star of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, at last year’s Cannes
Adèle Haenel, star of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, at last year’s Cannes

Film and TV festivals are falling like flies. Across the world, as the coronavirus outbreak continues, event after event is being cancelled or delayed. This year’s South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in the US, due to start at the weekend in Texas, has been scrapped; the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia has been stopped in its tracks; MIPTV, one of the major television markets, has likewise been abandoned. All over the world, from Europe to Hong Kong and Qatar, movie events are being shelved, postponed or downsized. The talk now is that the queen bee itself, Cannes (12-23 May), the biggest, most prestigious festival of them all, might not happen. Cannes has been shut down only once before (if you don’t count the interruption of the Second World War). That was in 1968 after protests led by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut in support of striking workers, but was considered a one-off aberration. Nobody contemplated that it could ever happen again.

At present, attitudes within the industry towards the potential cancellation of Cannes are split. Some are saying that it would be absurd to give up on the festival now, a full two months before it is due to take place. They accuse their more wary colleagues of scaremongering and point out that by mid-May, the spread of the virus might well have been arrested anyway. They doubt that the virus would survive in the Mediterranean sunshine. Festival organisers are claiming that applications to attend are higher than last year and are insistent that, as matters stand, the event will go ahead. Unless the infection rate in the south of France shoots up, it will be business (almost) as normal, although it is far from clear that the restrictions on public gatherings will be lifted by May.

“Unless there is a major development, a huge outbreak and we find out that Nice has a thousand confirmed outbreaks, I don’t know why we would pick on Cannes,” says Dennis Davidson, founder of DDA, the PR and marketing agency which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and which remains a major power broker at the festival.

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