Cannes Plots Contingency Plans to Go On in Face of Coronavirus

The Cannes Film Festival is rapidly assembling a contingency plan to keep the festival going.

A spokesperson for the festival told Variety on Wednesday that preparations are being made to down-size the event and limit audiences in auditoriums and other festival venues — a strategy that could help the event get around a ban that restricts gatherings to 1,000 people. While this current ban is set to expire on April 15, Cannes is preparing for a scenario in which it is maintained.

One option is to limit seating in the main auditorium where gala world premieres are hosted. The venue boasts 853 seats in its orchestra and an additional 1,456 seats on its balcony.

However, Cannes’ optimism could be short-lived if the country is placed in quarantine, as is the case in Italy. France’s president Emmanuel Macron will be making a televised speech on Thursday evening to address coronavirus concerns and possibly announce new measures.

Although coronavirus has just been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, a representative for France’s health minister tells Variety there are no immediate plans to tighten the ban — which expires a day before the festival’s April 16 press conference — below 1,000.

In France, the second most impacted country in Europe behind Italy, several high-profile events have been canceled, notably MipTV, the international TV showcase that was scheduled to take place in Cannes at the end of the month, and Series Mania, the Lille-set TV drama festival that was also due to bow in late March and was axed today.

But unlike in the U.S. where the city of Austin pulled the plug on SXSW over coronavirus fears, the French government has not played an active role in canceling any of the country’s high-profile cultural or media events. Both MipTV and Series Mania were pulled by their respective organizers mainly because too many guests and participants had bowed out due to travel bans put in place by their companies or governments.

For Cannes, one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals as well as the biggest film market for independent players, the stakes are much higher.

“It’s a matter of soft power for France. No one, not even the culture minister (who has tested positive for coronavirus), or the regional and local authorities, want to see Cannes getting scrapped because so much is in the balance — not just economically but also culturally,” said a high-ranking French film executive close to the fest.

2019 was a banner year for Cannes as it world premiered Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite,” winner of the Palme d’Or and four Oscars, and Ladj Ly’s Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated “Les Miserables,” as well as Celine Sciamma’s Golden Globe-nominated “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” among many other standouts that went on to become commercial and critical hits.

The show may go on — but who will come? 

However, if the Cannes Film Festival is maintained, what kind of event will it shape up to be and who will turn up?

Part of the answer may lie in the geographical spread of the coronavirus outbreak. In France, where there are 1,784 cases and 33 deaths as of March 11, the virus is expected to peak in one month and projected to tail off in two months, around the time Cannes kicks off, according to Alexandre Bleibtreu, a doctor specializing in infectious, parasitic and tropical diseases at the Pitié-Salpêtrière, one of the country’s leading hospitals.

However, in the U.S., where there are now over 1,000 cases, the epidemic is still in early stages and expected to peak in roughly two months, he says.

Catia Rossi, head of Italy’s Vision Distribution, remains sceptical about the global turn-out. “We’re working as though we (are) all going to Cannes. But will the Americans come? Will the Latin Americans come? Will the Scandinavians come? Will people who have not been very affected by the virus come to a place where there will be people from areas such as Asia and Italy, (which) have been very affected? I just don’t know,” she said.

In China, executives at big groups such as Bona Film Group, Wanda Film and Huayi Brothers have not yet ruled out Cannes and are adopting a wait-and-see approach. Among Chinese outfits, some execs who had skipped the European Film Market in February are looking forward to attending Cannes if it happens.

“We are still planning for Cannes. We really hope the virus gets controlled by then. We could not make it for Berlinale (so) we’re praying we can all go to Cannes,” said an exec at Chinese distribution outfit Infotainment. “We need to find good movies for 2022 — otherwise we won’t have anything to sustain us, as we won’t have enough films to distribute in China.”

For North Americans, traveling to the Cannes Film Festival might be more complicated than for guests coming from Europe, notably Italy, or even from Asia where the outbreak will be receding. If the virus reaches its peak in the U.S. in the run-up to Cannes, industry professionals traveling from the U.S. will face the risk of being quarantined for 14 days if they make the trip to France, or not be allowed to fly back home after the fest.

Companies that already have travel bans in place include Sony, Amazon, CAA and Warner Bros.

As for American stars, “no talent agent, producer or sales agent will allow them to travel amid a global health crisis and become liable in case someone gets infected with coronavirus. It could cost them millions of dollars in damages,” said Emilie Georges, founder of Memento Films International, which won’t have to worry this year about major U.S. talent given its slate is European-focused.

Meanwhile, a high-ranking American agent tells Variety his firm will decide its course of action according to corporate guidelines, as well as WHO directives. As far as a Cannes premiere without talent, the agent said it will depend on the film. “If it’s a director-driven film, perhaps,” he allowed.

Over at one major U.S. independent distributor, a senior executive said discussions are ongoing around festival attendance. The exec said he would like to see the city of Cannes put some system in place where “guests have to show a clean bill of health” or a “gold star on their accreditation,” confirming they’ve tested negative for coronavirus.

Rebecca Davis and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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