Cannes Firsts – Lessons from the Market

Now that the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Film Festival are starting to fade – not that a benefits office in Newcastle is particularly glitzy or glamorous – it’s worth reminding readers that most of the action in Cannes every May takes place not in the festival but the market – or the Marché, as the locals call it. Sales agents in the stands of the Palais, Riviera and Lerins exhibition halls, as well as in the hotels and apartment buildings along the Croisette and even in beach-side restaurants, are selling thousands of films to distributors from territories around the world, using every tool in the box, including cinema screenings, trailers on iPads, suitable posters and if they’re lucky, the names in the package.

But it’s a long, hard slog for anyone who fancies themselves as the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Before you get studios clamouring to work with you – or public funding bodies throwing money at you – you have to show your mettle. What’s Worth Seeing caught up with two directors, at different stages of their film-making careers, to find out how they used the market to further their efforts to reach the big time.


The Seedlings is one of hundreds of shorts from around the world being promoted at Short Film Corner

I brought my first short film, The Seedlings, to the Cannes Short Film Corner with the aim of promoting it among festival programmers and attracting future collaborators for other projects. It was also a time of exploration for me as an emerging filmmaker to see where my “voice” would resonate best or find its audience, if you like. There is so much hunger and commitment in places like this, the energy is palpable among new filmmakers, the ambition raw, almost ferocious in some.

Coming to film-making later than some and not from a conventional route, I wanted to push myself and discover; so I chose for my first ever short to do a costume drama, with an all female cast, whose lead is an exceptional first-time actress, 11 year-old Arianna Jennings. As soon as I met her in the audition, she stood out – it was like encountering a young Tilda Swinton. The Festival’s past recognition of the period film The Piano, by Jane Campion, made Cannes an obvious platform from which to try get onto the industry’s radar and make connections for the future.

Before I arrived, the Cannes Film Festival conjured up images of glamour, done in the classic French way – and it didn’t disappoint; experiencing the red carpet for Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta at the Grand Theatre Lumiere was definitely a transporting experience and a highlight for me.
On the flip-side, sharing anecdotes with others, it’s clear that Cannes is not for the faint-hearted. Visiting the huge film market forces you to focus on the product you are involved in creating; Where will it end up? Who will really want to see it?
A good tip from seasoned Cannes visitors was to seek out sales agents, distributors and production companies before embarking on my first feature to see if my idea is sellable and of interest to anyone out there. Speaking to people on the business side of the industry helps you to think longer term about your film and strategise.
This is my third visit to the Cannes film festival and market. However, this time was in some way a first for me, as it was my first trip with a completed feature film. I’m now a “grown-up”.

The first time I came to Cannes, it was to look and learn, rather than get involved. I used the opportunity to examine the market and work out for myself what kinds of films are the easiest to sell as a beginner feature film-maker with no meaningful track record. My discovery was that films sell better if you can clearly communicate their genre with your poster artwork. It’s even more effective if you make a horror or thriller.

A "grown-up" Brian Barnes showing his trailer for The Redeeming to a sales agent in the Palais
A “grown-up” Brian Barnes showing his trailer for The Redeeming to a sales agent in the Palais

Armed with this information, I went back home and cooked up a simple psychological horror short film called The Urge. It was a kind of proof of concept, both for the market and for myself as a horror director, as I had never properly considered specialising in a particular genre before that.

So, the second time I came to Cannes, it was to promote The Urge. By that time, the film had already won 4 of its 5 awards. Despite this, I found it very difficult to be taken seriously by established players, as in their eyes, I had done “nothing”. I clearly needed to make a feature film.

It has been a very difficult and stressful 3 years, but I came to Cannes this time with a poster and trailer for my recently completed debut feature film The Redeeming. On this visit, I have had a laser focus on meeting as many sales agents as possible in order to create as many opportunities as I can to secure a distribution deal for the film.

Having this clear and simple mission has not only made my job easier, but has also ensured that I have been regarded as a fellow professional by the market delegates and producers here at the most important event in the film world.

Out of all the pitches I made to 21 sales agents, only two said they weren’t interested in finding out more about the film. Everyone else asked to see the trailer, and all but one of those then asked to watch the film itself. This is a staggeringly successful hit rate.

One reason why this trip has been so successful for me and the film is because of the market research I effectively did on the previous visits, determining what the market is looking for and then working out how to deliver it. I learnt how to present my project to them in such a way that they cannot say “no”.

My hope is that the next Cannes I attend will be to watch my chosen sales agent sell my film across the world. I’ll let you know.