Everything I Learned At My First Cannes (Or: What No One Ever Tells You)

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

For two weeks of the year each spring, the Croisette in Cannes transforms into a veritable parallel universe—one governed by difficult-to-decipher dress codes, where dinners go on until 1 a.m., and the color of your press badge determines everything. Below, a rundown of everything I learned from my first Cannes film festival—and everything I wish I’d known.

The flight is treated as a major networking opportunity

It seems inevitable that flights between London and Nice during the festival would be packed with critics, directors, and producers, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for the level of industry chat on the first flight out from City Airport. The scene outside the gate resembled a production or sales meeting, with sample quotes ranging from “Oh, I’m head of documentary now,” and “I’m telling you, if you need visual effects, this is the woman you should go to,” to “Oh no, I don’t work with him anymore—he just had no authority on set.” It was exactly the same on my flight back, where I sat in front of a documentarian and a producer who spoke at length about the latter’s upcoming project with a prominent (and cancelled) American actor. It’s also worth saying that once you get to Cannes, every form of transportation is seen as fair game—on a bus between screenings, I witnessed an Italian actor badger a French producer for his phone number. The producer eventually relented, but would only give him his Instagram handle. Brutal.

The hotel lobbies are like a three-ring circus

The Hôtel Martinez, the Carlton, Le Majestic—all of the major hotels on the Croisette are understandably crammed during the festival, but the frenzied crowds at their entrance and inside the lobbies are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. When checking into the former on my first day, I was only able to get past all the fans and paparazzi at the entrance because I’d arrived in a car (re-entering every single time from then on was almost impossible, and involved showing security your room key and then using the service entrance). Inside, there are literally hundreds of people milling around and taking photos, and getting to your room is something of an obstacle course. The lifts are tiny and, given the width of many people’s ballgowns, can fit very few at a time. At one point, when I was running late for a dinner, I decided to take the stairs, but found that this took even longer—each landing and staircase was taken up with a different influencer dressed to the nines and doing a mini photoshoot, whom I had to dash past looking extremely apologetic.

It takes double the time you think it will to get anywhere

Google Maps will tell you that it takes 16 minutes along the Croisette to go from the Martinez to the Gare Maritime, where you can pick up your press badge, but in reality it’s about half an hour—the pavements are narrow and permanently jam-packed with slow-walking people in tuxedos and dresses with extravagant trains. There are barriers everywhere, too, and the traffic is always at a standstill, as actors sit in cars for an hour to get to a premiere that they could feasibly have walked to. Unless you are of course going to a premiere too, the Croisette is best avoided in the evenings—I learned this the hard way while leaving another screening and attempting to go home by that route, only to get crushed in a crowd by the Chanel store. After 10 minutes of having my face literally pressed against the glass storefront, I was somehow able to slide out and take the backstreets.

I’d also assumed, for some reason, that all the cinemas would be on the Croisette, but not so—a few are much further out, including Licorne (a 15-minute bus ride) and Cineum (a 25-minute bus ride), meaning it’s best not to be too ambitious with the number of films you try to see each day. (You’ll also have to begin queuing to go into a cinema about 20 minutes before each screening begins, and some screenings naturally run late.) Between two and three films per day, at the most, is usually best.

The color of your badge defines you

I didn’t even notice the color of my own press badge (yellow) until I started noticing the color of everyone else’s. A white badge is the most prestigious, giving you prioritized access to press conferences; those with pink badges fall just below them; then those with blue badges; and finally those with yellow badges. The color of your badge is apparently determined by the importance and size of your media outlet, and several people told me that, even though the festival denies it, print continues to be prioritized over online. At dinner on my first night, I met a festival veteran with a white badge who was gracious enough not to comment on the color of my badge, but then, in a queue for the bathroom on my final day, a French woman with a pink badge leaned over and touched mine. “Wow,” she whispered. “I haven’t seen one this color before.” I’ve never been more embarrassed.

The ticketing system can be challenging

In the past, seeing a film at Cannes involved queueing, sometimes for hours, and occasionally getting to the front only to be told that the screening room was full. Now, though, a virtual booking system exists where tickets are released at 7 a.m. CEST four days in advance. I took this to mean that I should get up at 5:55 a.m. UK time every day for a week in order to book tickets. When I did, I found that almost everything was fully booked within the first minute. Some attendees later told me that they have colleagues whose job it is to book them into the right screenings, but it’s also possible to see most releases even if you don’t have this. The key, I eventually discovered, is to book last-minute and keep checking the system as often as possible. Tickets are cancelable up to 30 minutes before a screening starts, and this is usually when a flurry of slots become available. And, if that doesn’t work, there’s always the last-minute queue, which allows you to grab a seat if there are no-shows.

Once the rumor began going around that Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest could snag the Palme d’Or, it became impossible to get a ticket to see it. When it was screening for the final time, I took the bus out to Cineum and joined the last-minute queue for half an hour, sitting on the floor with my laptop and writing, while also refreshing the ticketing page every five minutes. In the end, I managed to get a ticket—and it was worth the wait. My only worry, however, is that I’ll now spend the rest of my life jerking awake at 5:55 a.m. and instinctively panicking about whether or not I got a ticket to Firebrand.

The dress codes can be amusingly vague or incredibly specific

There’s been much written about Cannes’s stringent and somewhat antiquated dress codes, but the reality on the ground is a tale of two halves. For the majority of screenings, journalists are simply asked to wear “proper attire”—the meaning of this is unclear, so anything goes, really. But, it’s an entirely different story for the premieres at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, where the dress code is black tie. For men, the rules state, this means a tuxedo or “a black or midnight blue suit with a bow tie,” while for women it can mean “an evening dress, a cocktail dress, a dark trouser suit, a dressy top with black trousers [or] a little black dress.”

When it comes to footwear, following years of confusion and controversy, the festival is at pains to stress that heels are not compulsory, but “elegant shoes” are required and trainers are banned. I saw a handful of people in dainty flat sandals, though most appeared to be rushing to the red carpet in ballgowns and flip flops before changing into spindly heels (Jennifer Lawrence, of course, kept her flip flops on). Also, in what feels like a targeted indictment of the unofficial dress code of disheveled film journalists, there’s a specific ban on tote bags at the Lumière, alongside backpacks and other large bags.

Selfies are still discouraged—if not banned

The other thing forbidden at the Lumière? Selfies, which have been described as “ridiculous and grotesque” by Cannes’s festival director Thierry Frémaux. In a sense, you can understand why they are discouraged: if everyone arriving on the red steps stopped for a photo, as they’d surely want to, screenings would be massively delayed. But even then, the rule that taking a selfie could result in someone being denied access to a screening seems severe. At my only screening at the Lumière (which was during the day, and not for a premiere), I saw several attendees stopping for photos and so risked a selfie in the interests of journalistic research. Within seconds, an official began coming down the steps to usher us on, but I can confirm that I was still allowed into the cinema. Maybe Cannes is moving with the times after all.

Standing ovations are the norm, but their length is revealing

It’s customary for every film to get a standing ovation at its premiere, but the number of minutes it lasts is crucial. One festival veteran, who has spent over a decade recording the length of standing ovations at Cannes, told me that four minutes or below is considered poor (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny received a muted five-minute standing ovation, for instance), while anything above seven is considered exceptional (Killers of the Flower Moon received nine). Thankfully, at press screenings, only a smattering of applause is required before you can slip out—except for the more widely panned titles like Jessica Hausner’s Club Zero, which were greeted with a deafening silence.

You’ll get five hours of sleep a night at the most

If you, like me, attempt to cover parties and also wake up in time for the first screenings at 8:30 a.m., sleep can be difficult to come by. At dinners in Cannes, it’s not unheard of for your dessert to arrive just before 1 a.m., and drinks and dancing can continue for hours after that. (There are also midnight screenings that end well past 2 a.m.) Without a strategic disco nap—recommended to me by several Cannes regulars—you’re sure to find your eyes straining once you’re in the comfy, air-conditioned bowels of a cinema first thing in the morning. The fact that the Croisette exists in its own warped timezone was perhaps most apparent to me at the Martinez’s breakfast buffet, where, in a sea of cocktail dresses and six-inch heels, it was genuinely difficult to tell who had stayed up all night and who’d gotten up early to get dressed for their next premiere.

A diet of coffee and cigarettes is de rigueur

Breakfast buffets are especially important because they are usually where you’ll have the most food, at least during the day. There are gala dinners, of course, but running across town from screenings to press conferences to interviews before then means there’s often little time for the leisurely lunches you might picture yourself having in Cannes. Most of the journalists I met seemed to have packed baguettes in foil, to be eaten in the queues to screenings, or sustained themselves on coffee and cigarettes alone. I quickly learned to buy sandwiches for lunch when I went to get my morning coffee, as by 1 p.m., every boulangerie within a three-mile radius appeared to be out of food. My other meals included salads gobbled down in five minutes by the side of the road and fruit for snacking on in the cinema which, luckily, is allowed.

Despite everything, it all just works

Considering the commotion around the festival, it’s actually startling to see how well it all functions. There are hiccups, of course—for example, countless ticket holders being turned away from a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s Strange Way of Life by mistake after waiting for an hour in the pouring rain—but these are quickly rectified. (After this incident, additional screenings of the film were arranged.) Credit must go to the organizers, but also to the staff on the ground, who are always on hand to direct you to the right cinema or workspace. Among the latter is a press room, recommended to me by a German critic I met in a queue, which includes a terrace that looks onto the red carpet. From here, you can work and still hear the screams of fans as celebrities file down to premieres, making it the perfect place to soak up the atmosphere of Cannes. And that is ultimately the best piece of advice I received about the festival: take half an hour out of each day to stop and look around you, because before you know it, it’ll all be over in a flash.

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