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Catch It If You Cannes...

I would like to start this month with a confession. I once ingested a hallucinogenic substance. I’m not going to say what it was or under what circumstances I took it because my mother might read this some day. I did it consciously, deliberately, in a safe environment with a clear understanding of what was involved. And I had an absolutely freaking awesome time!

      I was out of my gourd all evening right through till breakfast. I saw some freaky things during my trip and I dined out on unexaggerated tales of same at many subsequent social gatherings. But I have never tried that substance - or any other hallucinogen - again. Because I had such a great time. If I ever tried to recreate that experience, it could never be as good. The best I could hope for is something not quite as awesome, but anything less than what I experienced would diminish that first time. I would rather have great memories of something fabulous than run the risk of diluting them with later, lesser memories. In other words, you can’t go home again.

      Which brings me to my main text today. Which is film markets. Now I should explain what I mean by film markets. I’m not talking about dealers’ tables covered with videos and lobby cards and books and toys and posters. I mean, I do love those things. Or I did. They so rarely happen nowadays. Time was that a dealer’s fair was the one chance that you had, as a film fan, to pick up stuff for your collection. I used to love flicking through boxes of old photos. Today, photos have no currency as objects because the image itself is probably on the web somewhere. But photos used to mean something.

      I recall one time finding a black and white still of a group of men covered in foam. Some of them were wearing uniforms. Often those old stills would have the name of the film written on the back. They were sent out to newspapers and magazines, and journalists would label the things so that the layout guys knew which picture to stick where. Black and white 10"x8" stills were still routinely included in film publicity packs when I was on SFX in the mid-to-late 1990s. We filed them away alphabetically in a huge filing cabinet and we had to make sure they were labelled on the back (unless the subject matter was obvious) so that if we needed to reuse them, we had an idea of what was what.

      So I looked at this still. Nothing on the back. Then I recognised that one of the actors, under all that gunk, was George C Scott. And realisation dawned. This was from the legendary custard-pie fight that was shot over several days as the climax to Dr Strangelove. This was an image from one of the most famous deleted scenes in history, back in the days when ‘deleted scenes’ meant stuff no-one had ever seen, not just a thing on a DVD menu in between the audio commentary and the trailer. I bet if I went to Google now I could find that same image on a dozen websites. But that’s not the point. I’m an old-fashioned collector. The image is interesting but what I held in my hand, what I have in my filing cabinet under ‘D’ - old habits die hard - was an actual publicity still from one of the greatest movies ever made, depicting a scene that no-one apart from Stanley Kubrick and his editor had ever seen. Holy cow.

      I’ve made other great discoveries at dealers’ fairs from an original 1927 theatre programme for the West End production of Dracula to a plastic cereal carton in the shape of Bill and Ted’s time-travelling phone booth. But such events are few and far between now. People don’t collect like they used to. When everything is freely available, what’s the point in owning it? Modern films don’t have black and white 10"x8" stills anyway and they certainly don’t have lobby cards. Even when I left the mag in 1998, monochrome stills and colour transparencies (known variously in the industry as ‘colour’ or ‘trannies’, depending on how bigoted you wanted to accidentally sound) were disappearing, replaced by photos on CD-ROMs or on password-protected websites.

      Why should a dealer lug boxes of this stuff up and down the country and spend all day stuck behind a trestle table, when they could just slap it all on eBay? It used to be that you had to search for stuff. You could spend years trying to track down that elusive one-sheet or soundtrack album. Now you just type it into a search box and you can pick from a selection. It takes all the fun out of collecting. Collecting isn’t about owning. It’s about finding and it’s about showing. But there’s no thrill in finding something if all you did was tap a few keys then wait for the postman. And there’s little thrill in showing someone your collection if you both know that they could get the same stuff that you have in a week.

      So no, that’s not the kind of film market I’m talking about. I’m talking about a Film Market. A place where people buy and sell films. Not videos, not DVDs, not super-8, but actual films. That is: the rights to films. A film market is where film-makers, sales agents and distributors (and the occasional journalist) gather for a week to have meetings, strike deals, attend parties, talk bullshit, attend more parties, schmooze, bitch, see and be seen, watch films (maybe) and generally do the whole ‘film business’ thang.

      The most famous film market is Cannes, and it undoubtedly causes the most confusion, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately engineered. How often have you read about some tiny indie film "going to Cannes” or "being shown in Cannes”? Local newspapers reporting on local filmmakers who have cobbled something together will often write impressively of how the film is screening in Cannes. And people naturally assume that this means the Cannes Film Festival. The film-makers go over to the French seaside town of Cannes, stay there during the Festival, then come back with fabulous tales.

      But here’s what most people don’t realise. Every year in May, in the town of Cannes, two things happen simultaneously. There is the Cannes Film Festival and the Cannes Film Market. They happen at exactly the same point in space-time. It’s not like there’s a festival happening at one end of the promenade and a market at the other. There’s not one on the beach and one in the cinema. Both events happen throughout the town, concentrating on the big cinema/conference centre and spreading out to bars, hotels, yachts and, yes, the beach.

       The Cannes Film Festival is the one you see on TV and in the newspapers. It is big and glamorous and sexy and full of beautiful, famous people. They show the world premieres of major international films there, competing for a grand prize selected by a jury of famous film folk. It’s all red carpets and paparazzi and TV crews. It’s Barry Norman or Jonathan Ross or Mark Kermode or whoever does that stuff now, depending on your age. It’s most definitely not for the likes of you and me. That’s the Festival. Festival, get it?

      It’s not the Market. The Festival happens up above ground, in Mediterranean sunlight or under the exploding applause of two hundred flash-bulbs. The Market skulks below ground in the depths of the convention centre, with tendrils that stretch out to hotel suites and the town’s more mundane cinemas and screening rooms. The only red carpet in these places is where wine has been spilled at the previous year’s event. Anybody can show a movie at the Cannes Film Market. All you have to do is book a screening slot at one of the venues then hope folk will turn up. All the screenings are listed in Screen International and Variety who publish huge, thick, perfect-bound special editions for Cannes each year. Not for the Festival but for the Market.

      These special magazines are effectively catalogues of all the product that is on sale at the market, listing every company flogging stuff and a selection of what they are flogging. Completed films, films in post-production, films in production, films in pre-production and films in development (which means, like the man says: Is there a script? No, but there’s a poster). Some companies set up a stall in the conference centre, some take hotel suites. You can walk down the corridors of hotels and pop your head round doorways and talk to people and sometimes be shown stuff on their TV. Everyone’s looking to buy and sell, sometimes both. Everybody’s hustling. Everybody’s bigging up themselves and their product. Everybody is just on that cusp of honesty where they’re not actually lying, I mean they say they’re going to make the film and, yes, they’re going to make the film. Unless no-one’s interested in the film in which case they’re not going to make it. But they may go back into Photoshop, tweak the poster, change the title and bring it back next year for another try.

      You see some amazing things at the Cannes Film Market. You see people blowing huge wads of their money (or more often, some naive investor’s money) on publicising pieces of crap that are either never going to get made, or have been made but are never going to be seen. Maybe eventually they’ll appear on a budget-price DVD under a different title. You see fabulous posters for awful films and awful posters for fabulous films. You see Lloyd Kaufman. You will always, always see Uncle Lloydy. Working for Troma at Cannes is like a rite of passage. In fact, Lloydy made a documentary about it some years ago, called All the Love You Cannes. Which he shot at Cannes and then brought back to Cannes the following year to try and sell to people.

      And yes, you do get to glimpse the red carpet (the real one, not the one with Bordeaux stains) and the occasional star. That’s because, as I say, these two things are happening at the same time in the same place. It’s like that bit in a ghost film or time-travel movie where someone walks through someone else (by the miracle of double exposure) and for a few frames, the two people are in the same place. That’s Cannes in May. The most fabulous, glamorous event in the film calendar and one of the scuzziest, cheapest, sometimes laughably tattiest events, intertwined like the results of a teleportation experiment gone awry. As I recall, there was even a dealers’ fair in one of the buildings the year that I was there, so I could have bought some lobby cards had I wanted to.

      Because yes, I did go to Cannes. In 2000 I got myself a press pass (presumably as an SFX freelancer, although I might have got away in those days with just listing my own website) and arranged to share accommodation with some folks I knew. Oh man, the whole accommodation thing is even scuzzier and trashier than the films and the venues. You don’t want to know what goes on. I booked a flight to Nice and got a taxi to Cannes and you know what? - I don’t have space to recount my adventures this month, but let me assure you that I had an absolutely freaking awesome time. The best time ever.

      And that’s why I’ve never been back. Because, just like my one and only trip out of my head, my one and only trip to Cannes was special. It could never be repeated (and not just because I’m older). It could never be equalled. I have great memories. I don’t want to dilute them. But I do want to share them. Maybe next month...

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.