History of the Cannes film festival

Festival de Cannes is the premiere showcase for the International film industry. Every year the festival attracts the best in cinema from around the world. The history this festival dates back to the 1930’s, created in the ashes of a dream and forged in the fires of war-torn Europe.

Pre and Post war Era
Throughout most of the 1930’s, The Mostra di Venezia was the festival of choice for European filmmakers. Yet, as the 1930’s drew to a close and fascist governments started to control the continent, films honoring these governments started to win the top awards. The 1938 Venice festival saw the German “Olympia” and the Italian “Luciano Serra, Pilota” win the top prize over the favorite “La Grande Illusion” by Jean Renoir. The French, British, and Americans all withdrew from the competition in protest.

Later that same year a group planned a new international film festival. This festival would be free of the politics and bias that burdened the Venice Film Festival. The city of Cannes became the host and the Festival International du Film was set to open up on September 1, 1939. The festival had one day of activity in 1939 before closing down due to the outbreak of World War II.

After World War 2, the dream of starting a new film festival still burned brightly in those involved before the outbreak of the war. The French ministry of Education and the ministry of Foreign Affairs took over the event, which debuted on September 20, 1946. Films presented in the first outing include “Lost Weekend” by Billy Wilder, “Rome Open City” by Roberto Rossellini, and “Notorious” by Alfred Hitchcock. The first year was a success and the festival would continue.

A reemergence and growth

As the 1940’s came to a close and the 1950’s opened, the Cannes Film Festival grew in size and international acclaim. To help accommodate the new world-wide interest in the festival, the organizers decided to change the date from traditional month of September to earlier in the year. This helped bring in more tourists and helped with the competition from both the Berlin and the still operating Venice film festivals. Cannes opened in 1951 in April and under a newly finished home at the Palais des Festivals.

Changes continued for Cannes throughout the 1950’s. The top prize of the Grand Prix du Festival became the now more widely known Palme d’Or in 1955. A film market started in 1959 called Marché du Film to help bridge the game between those selling films and those buying. This was a first for the film industry and helped pave the way for international movies around the world.

Social Changes come to Cannes

The 1960’s saw the turmoil of the world spill in to the Cannes Film Festival. By 1962, the idea of film as art started to make resurgence. The French Union of Film Critics set The International Critics’ Week up to help facilitate this idea. This week helped highlight films by directors that weren’t necessarily aimed at commercialization. In 1966, Olivia de Havilland became the first woman to preside over a Cannes jury.

The 1970’s brought a bevy of changes to the Festival as well. In 1972, the film selection guidelines changed radically. Before that time, each individual country selected which films to show at Cannes. The new rules stated that two separate committees would choose the foreign films for Cannes as well as the French films. In 1978 new president, Gilles Jacob reduced the length of the festival to thirteen days as well as reduced the amount of movies shown. He also started the tradition of including professionals and actors from the film industry in to the film jury pool.

A new kind of festival

The 1980’s saw a major change Cannes venue. The now aged Palais Croisette couldn’t keep up with the modern crowds that Cannes drew from around the world. The new venue opened in 1983 and the first official festival at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. Unofficially the festival attendees dubbed it “The Bunker.”
The 1990’s saw the festival return to the independent roots. Winners throughout the decade tended to center on more art house and less commercial films. A movement within the Cannes organization started to help mentor up and coming filmmakers and writers. Called La Cinéfondation, competition focuses on short and medium length films from various schools around the world.

The Modern Era

The 2000’s saw the festival reach new heights in popularity that has continued to this day. In 2002, Le Festival International du Film de Cannes adopted the short and less formal name of Festival de Cannes. The Festival continues to attract new and established talent from across the world.

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.