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What Is the Cannes Film Festival?

by Scott Kacsmar
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Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival is one of the most celebrated and prestigious film festivals in the world. Even though it is not open to the public, it is a big annual event for fans of cinema and the stars and directors who attend the multi-day festival to network and connect while new films are shown.

In 2024, the Cannes Film Festival is celebrating its 77th edition from May 14 through May 25. Before heading to the top-rated sportsbooks for this year’s winners, we wanted to look back at the history of how the festival started, why it’s especially important for European cinema and the prestigious awards that are handed out, including the famed Palme d’Or.

Why Do They Call It the Cannes Film Festival?

The first thing you should probably know about the Cannes Film Festival is that it has earned its name for always taking place in Cannes, France at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès convention center.

Palais des Festivals et des Congrès

However, it was not always known as the Cannes Film Festival. In fact, before 2002, it was known for decades as the International Film Festival. But to better stand out among the other big European film festivals like the Venice Film Festival in Italy and the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany, it needed a name to honor its location.

Therefore, in 2002 they changed the name officially to the Cannes Film Festival. But the origin story of the festival’s creation goes back much further than that.

The Origin Story of the Cannes Film Festival

You can trace the origins of Cannes back to 1938. Jean Zay, the French Minister of National Education, wanted to set up an international festival for film. He was supported by Americans and the British. It was the French desire to compete with the Venice Film Festival, which was the only international film festival around at the time.

That proved problematic given the events in the world at the time with fascism taking over in European countries. For instance, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made sure the French pacifist film La Grande Illusion did not win in 1937.

It got even worse in 1938 when Mussolini and Adolf Hitler (enough said) overruled the jury and decided in favor of films produced by Mussolini’s son and a Nazi-produced Olympic documentary (Olympia) despite the fact that documentaries were not supposed to be eligible to win.

This injustice led to French, British and American jury members refusing to withdraw from the Venice festival and seek their own. In 1939, Cannes was chosen as the location in France for a new festival.

On August 31, 1939, the opening night of the first festival in Cannes was a success with plenty of stars in attendance, including Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and James Cagney, who arrived via ocean liner. However, if you know that date well, then you know that on the next day, Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War II.

The festival was delayed and ultimately canceled. Still, after the war finally ended in 1945, another was organized for 1946, which was the First Cannes International Film Festival with 21 countries featured. With budget issues plaguing the event in its infancy, it was moved to May to not compete directly with the other festivals. It was formally accredited by the FIAPF in 1951.

In the 1950s, media and fan attention increased even though the event was invite only for those in the film business. Awards were soon added to the festival, and its profile continued to grow by the decade to the point where it is one of the most well-known film festivals in the world today.

The Importance of Cinema Around the World

Cannes was always important for the distribution of European films and cinema. In the 1970s and 1980s, more countries started to show their films at Cannes, and sometimes it even helped them bypass censorship issues in their country like in the case of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky.

A bigger convention center was built in the 1980s to accommodate more films and the increased traffic of people. This also led to more countries taking pride in entering their films at Cannes for the first time, including China, Philippines, Cuba, Australia, India, New Zealand and Argentina.

In 1987, it became a red-carpet event for the first time. But despite always being an invite-only event not open to the public, the popularity has only grown around the world as more people have come to appreciate the quality of films screened at Cannes.

Through the distribution of VHS tapes in the 1990s, followed by the rise of the internet, more people were aware and interested in the type of foreign films and independent films often shown at Cannes.

When you move into the 21st century, social media and streaming services start to take over. The Criterion Collection begins producing more high-quality Blu-ray releases of these films. Some streaming services like Tubi and Mubi carry more of these films than other popular choices like Netflix and Hulu.

More recently, an app like Letterboxd launched in 2012 to help people find and review these films while creating communities of fans. All of these things are connected to the rise of the Cannes Film Festival showcasing the best in international film from around the world.

The Awards at the Cannes Film Festival

There are several competitive award categories for the best in film at the Cannes Film Festival. They include the following prizes:

  • Palme d’Or – Golden Palm
  • Grand Prix – Grand Prize of the Festival
  • Prix du Jury – Jury Prize
  • Palme d’Or du court métrage – Best Short Film
  • Prix de la mise en scène – Best Director
  • Prix d’interprétation masculine – Best Actor
  • Prix d’interprétation féminine – Best Actress
  • Prix du scénario – Best Screenplay

The Jury Prize award is intended to “recognize an original work that embodies the spirit of inquiry.” United Kingdom directors Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold have both won that award 3 times each, the most of any filmmaker. The 2023 winner of the Jury Prize was Fallen Leaves from Finland.

In the final 2 sections, we look at the most prestigious awards at Cannes: Palme d’Or and Grand Prix.

  • The Palme d’Or (Golden Palm)

The top prize at the Cannes Film Festival is the Palme d’Or (“Golden Palm”). It has not always been the top prize. From 1939 to 1954, that distinction belonged to the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film.

In 1955, the award was changed to the Palme d’Or, and the American film Marty won that initial award. In 1964, the award reverted to its former name before the Palme d’Or returned in 1975. That’s what the top award has been called every year since.

Here are some past winners of the Palme d’Or that should be considered appointment viewing for cinema fans:

  • 1976: Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese (United States)
  • 1979: Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (United States)
  • 1990: Wild at Heart, directed by David Lynch (United States)
  • 1994: Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino (United States)
  • 1996: Secrets & Lies, directed by Mike Leigh (France, United Kingdom)
  • 2000: Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier (Denmark)
  • 2018: Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan)
  • 2019: Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho (South Korea)
  • 2023: Anatomy of a Fall, directed by Justine Triet (France)

In 1997, the festival honored Swedish director Ingmar Bergman with a special honorary Palme d’Or as surprisingly none of his films ever won the Palme d’Or.

Starting in 2002, a new Honorary Palme d’Or was often given out to a director or actor who had a notable body of work but never won the Palme d’Or. Some of those honorees include Woody Allen (2002), Clint Eastwood (2009), Forest Whitaker (2022), Tom Cruise (2022), Harrison Ford (2023), Michael Douglas (2023), George Lucas (2024) and Japan’s famed animation team at Studio Ghibli (2024).

  • The Grand Prix

The 2nd-most prestigious award given out by the jury of the festival is the Grand Prix. It debuted in 1967 when it was known as the “Grand Prix Spécial du Jury.” That year, the jury reached a tie in the vote, so a pair of films (Accident and I Even Met Happy Gypsies) shared the award.

There have been a total of 10 ties for this award, including the last in 2021 when Compartment No. 6 shared the prize with the Iranian-French drama A Hero.

For a short-lived period in 1989-94, the award was known as the “Grand Prix du Jury.” Finally, in 1995, the award was shortened to Grand Prix as it is known today.

Only 4 filmmakers have won the Grand Prix twice:

  • Andrei Tarkovsky (Soviet Union) for Solaris (1972) and The Sacrifice (1986)
  • Bruno Dumont (France) for Humanité (1999) and Flanders (2006)
  • Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey) for Uzak (2003) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
  • Matteo Garrone (Italy) for Gomorrah (2008) and Reality (2012)
  • Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros was the first woman to win the Grand Prix for Diary for My Children (1984).

Here are some past winners of the Grand Prix that are highly recommended for viewing:

  • 1970: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, directed by Elio Petri (Italy)
  • 1974: Arabian Nights, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy, France)
  • 1980: My American Uncle, directed by Alain Resnais (France)
  • 1982: The Night of the Shooting Stars, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Italy)
  • 1991: La Belle Noiseuse, directed by Jacques Rivette (France)
  • 1996: Breaking the Waves, directed by Lars von Trier (Denmark)
  • 1998: Life Is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni (Italy)
  • 2001: The Piano Teacher, directed by Michael Haneke (France, Austria)
  • 2004: Oldboy, directed by Park Chan-wook (South Korea)
  • 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (United States)
  • 2018: BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (United States)
  • 2023: The Zone of Interest, directed by Jonathan Glazer (United Kingdom)

Again, feel free to search for these films and more like them that are showcased at the Cannes Film Festival with the use of the streaming services we have available today.

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Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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