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Every Cannes Film Festival is important, but only a handful of the editions have been game-changers. As the festival celebrates its 70th birthday, here are five events that altered the DNA of Cannes, shaping the fest into the global powerhouse that it is today.

The First Festival, 1946

French minister for education and fine arts Jean Zay wanted an international event for France to rival the Venice Film Festival, which had begun in 1932. Several French cities wanted to host; Cannes was selected over Biarritz because it had better hotels. Variety reported in June 1939 that a Cannes festival was planned for September, under the presidency of Louis Lumiere; however, WWII put a freeze on any European festivities.

Cannes finally debuted in September 1946. Variety arranged for coverage, including a special report from Margaret Herrick, the executive secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Herrick marveled at the speed of travel: It took her only three days to get from Los Angeles to the Croisette (L.A. to N.Y., to Ireland, to Paris, then Cannes) and she predicted “trans-oceanic” flights from the U.S. would become more popular.

Herrick observed that Cannes was extremely crowded because there was a bigger turnout than expected, and she needed a U.S. government official to help her land “a wonderful suite at the Miramar.”

Variety reported on Oct. 8, 1946, that the fest had wrapped and each of the 10 countries represented got a prize. They included the U.S. (Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend”), Italy (Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City”) and U.K. (David Lean’s “Brief Encounter”); Mexico’s entry, Emilio Fernandez’s “Maria Candelaria,” was judged “most interesting film of the festival.”

Michele Morgan at the first Cannes, where she won best actress for “Pastoral Symphony.”
SIPA PRESS

In the early years, the festival often lasted a whopping 17 days.

Starting with the 1953 event, Cannes moved from fall to spring, saying the city wanted to boost off-season tourism. At that point, the Intl. Producers’ Assn. recognized only Venice and Cannes, but other international fests were springing up, including events in Berlin, Rio, Madras, Uruguay and Edinburgh, Acapulco and Moscow.

Despite the competition, Variety ran a story Oct. 3, 1956, proclaiming “Cannes Is Here to Stay.”

Simone Silva and Robert Mitchum, 1954

The Cannes Film Festival owes a lot to Simone Silva. The Egypt-born, U.K.-based actress was named Miss Festival in 1954, the seventh event, and posed on the beach with actor Robert Mitchum for photographers. Then she did something that wasn’t in the script: She took her top off. Newspapers around the world carried photos of her discreetly cupping her breasts or hugging Mitchum, showing only her back. The public wasn’t necessarily interested in a film festival, but after the hardships of a post-WWII era, people around the world were totally gaga over the image of a Hollywood movie star and a topless woman. From then on, publicity-seeking actresses regularly bared their breasts for photographers on the Riviera. And though the fest asked Silva to leave town, she turned out to be a key factor in putting the festival on the map. Because thanks to her, everybody knew the name Cannes, which quickly became synonymous with cinema, art — and sex.

1972 Selection Committees

After 25 years as Cannes festival topper, Robert Favre Le Bret was tired and feeling overwhelmed as the festival had grown to attendance estimated at 13,000. So starting with the 1972 event, Le Bret became president of the Cannes commission while Maurice Bessy signed on as festival director. The pair overhauled many aspects of the festival, including the crucial submission process.

Le Bret told Variety he wanted to end the practice of allowing any country with a prolific film industry to choose “an entry that must be accepted.” In addition, France was trying to “force” too many French pics into the festival.

He and Bessy created the fest as we know it, with committees to screen films. In May 2, 1972, Variety ran a story saying, “There is a selection committee, made up of film people, critics and art reps, but the brunt of the choices lie with Bessy and Le Bret.” The method was described as a tryout; Le Bret said that the fest would continue with the official selections (competing and non-competing) and with “two important sidebars, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Section, for more demanding, offbeat films.” Bessy concluded with a straight face that the two execs favor “unusual but still intelligible films.”

1996 the Marche du Film was integrated with the fest.

The first Cannes Market was held in 1959. And for decades, it was known as MIF. But many international sales companies set up shop in various hotels along the Croisette and didn’t even bother to register with the Market. Besides, many companies making plans for Cannes attendance started getting confused about MIF, Mipcom, MIP and other Riviera gatherings. Cannes’ veteran market chief Michel Bonnet died in 1995, and the festival hired Jerome Paillard as executive director of the Cannes Market, ready for changes. In May 6, 1996, festival president Pierre Viot told Michael Williams of Variety that executives wanted to bring the festival and the market closer together. Viot said, “I think it’s fair to say that we have always been comfortable with the artistic aspects of cinema and that we have tended to neglect the economic side.” A lot of people were doing business at the festival “and we wanted to integrate them fully.” In the 21 years since then, the Market has boomed

2001, “Moulin Rouge”,  “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”

By the end of the millennium, the Cannes Film Festival had become three events in one: a prestige festival, a market and a tourist destination, with throngs of Europeans eager to see stars. Starting in 2001, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Moulin Rouge” added a fourth role: global junkets.

In Cannes with his 1972 pic “Frenzy,” Alfred Hitchcock took a bike ride as the festival underwent big changes.
ANONYMOUS/AP/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Major studios at that point were iffy on Cannes, because if a film flopped there, it flopped in front of the world media. So Hollywood studios were happy to let indies including Gramercy, Miramax and USA Films represent America with pics such as “The Ice Storm” and “Nurse Betty.”

Nervous studios sent over a few bigger films like “Sunchaser” and “Mission to Mars,” but their caution became self-fulfilling to an indifferent press.

However that changed when Fox opted to send Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” to open the 2001 fest, with can-can dancers lining the red carpet and a re-creation of the Moulin Rouge nightclub for the after-premiere party. It was a huge success, and Hollywood began to realize the opportunities in Cannes.

That was cemented the following week with the screening of footage from “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Global distributors had made one of the biggest gambles in movie history, by funding $200 million for three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic books. New Zealand’s Peter Jackson was admired for his early films, but he was far from a box office guarantee. And if the first film failed, distribs could lose a fortune. So New Line arranged for 20 minutes of footage to be shown to the distributors and the press.

The result was a combination of relief and excitement because the footage was spectacular. That evening, New Line bused hundreds of festgoers to a mammoth party in the hills outside Cannes, where they re-created Middle- Earth in a faux castle, with Hobbit dwellings carted over to France for curious partygoers and special-edition copies of Tolkien’s books given as gifts.

After that, Hollywood realized that Cannes was the place for a big film.

In 2006, the studios had second thoughts when Sony spent a small fortune to bring “The Da Vinci Code” to Cannes. The film got terrible reviews and, adding insult to injury, the reviewers broke the embargo before the official screening began; the filmmakers were supposed to climb the steps of the Palais in triumph, but they slunk in, wounded by the harsh reaction. Still Hollywood learned a lesson: even if the jaded Cannes critics don’t like you, your film can score big; “Da Vinci Code” earned $758 million. So it didn’t seem to hurt if you were kicked in the Cannes.