Every year, he watches 1,800 films and rejects 1,750. Inside the life of the Cannes Film Festival's almighty power broker.
CANNES — Thierry Frémaux is pedaling. Wearing a black sweater and black lycra suit, in tribute to his Italian cycling idol Fausto Coppi, he eats up the kilometers on the plains below the Vercors Massifs in central France. Riding his 6.4-kilo Scott bike, he's wearing a helmet and earpiece like the Tour de France champions.
And along the 50 kilometers of his solitary breakaway, the delegate-general of the Cannes Festival continues his cinema world "negotiations" using his hands-free kit.
It's the last Saturday before the April 16 press conference, where the festival's official selections will be unveiled. Frémaux phones and fires off texts. He answers to the distributors, producers and directors bombarding him with emails to convince him "their film is the eighth wonder of the world," he says. "I'll do everything I can to get Amy Winehouse onto the Croisette," the distributor-producer of a documentary on the late soul singer writes with humor, referring to a prominent road in Cannes.
A swarm of trade professionals flatter him and hunt him down tirelessly.
"To convince me, some producers bluff," he says. "They tell me their film was chosen at the Venice Festival. But Venice festival director Alberto Barbera and I happen to talk. So I know if they're lying or not. Some of them would murder both their parents to be part of the selection."
Frémaux says he doesn't take the imperious threats of a producer such as Harvey Weinstein too seriously. "He tells me, "If you don’t choose this film, next time I do a good film, I'll give it to the Berlin Festival." Things only Harvey says."
Anyone trying to get hold of Frémaux by phone in April should first send an email with their phone number so he can identify the caller later.
While the walnut trees pass by, he tells a few unlucky candidates that their films didn't make the cut. His maxim: "Our job is too watch 1,800 films and reject 1,750."
Frémaux has been director of the Cannes Film Festival since 2004. Gripping the handlebar, pedaling slowly, he's now talking with the new festival president, Pierre Lescure, who followed Gilles Jacob. Frémaux once got tendonitis in his left elbow because of holding the cellphone to his ear too much.
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Thierry Frémaux, Gilles Jacob and Arte TV channel president Véronique Cayla at Cannes in 2009 — Photo: Plyd/GFDL
He calls his "colleagues" on the festival's three selection committees, which he put together himself. The French film selection panel has seats reserved for three journalists. The foreign film selection panel is comprised of three members, including Laurent Jacob, Gilles Jacob's son. The third panel gathers seven volunteers in charge of trimming down the first bulk of candidacies. The selections are made between February and April.
"We spend our lives inside the festival office's movie theater, on Amélie Street in Paris," Frémaux explains. "Hence the cycling. From 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., we watch foreign films. From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., it's French films. We eat in the room. We also watch one at home during breakfast. When we come across a notable scene, we tell the other members of the committee."
Friends in high places
Actress Nicole Kidman brings him flowers. Martin Scorsese invites him to his birthday parties in New York, with Philip Roth and Leo DiCaprio. Tim Roth and Benicio Del Toro are his "two close buddies." The Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi never comes through Paris without going out to eat snails with him.
With grey hair, three-day stubble and dark, Reservoir Dogs-like suits, 54-year-old Frémaux spends his time between Paris and Lyon, where he manages the Institut Lumière.
On this particular Saturday, he has no time for meditation. After the bicycle race, the race against time continues. Frémaux watches movies, full or only snippets, and re-watches others.
In 2001, Haneke's The Piano Teacher received three awards in Cannes. "Initially, we didn't select it," he says. "Then a second editing changed our minds. We're often criticized for always choosing the same filmmakers. But those who criticize us for this would be the first ones to say. "Those idiots, they let slip Haneke or Tarantino,""
The festival office receives 35 mm copies and DVDs. "Films that aren't always finished, subtitled or mixed, sometimes in thousands of pieces, with a temporary soundtrack," he says. "Some films now are sent through internet links. You have to watch them on a computer. I hate that. Nowadays, anyone can do a full-length feature film with an iPhone. We receive more and more films, but the average quality isn't any better."
Despite its cachet, many major American studios are still reluctant to show their films in Cannes. "They’re scared of ruining them before the race to the Oscars, which starts in October," Frémaux says. "May is too soon for them. They prefer concentrating their financial resources on the campaign for the Oscars. And a bad review in Variety, and Cannes has killed your movie." That's not all: "They also fear the intellectual aura or the "artsy" stamp of the festival, which would be prejudicial, according to them, to large commercial success. When we wanted to show The Hangover in Cannes, the producers told us no, fearing their film would seem highbrow."
Code of silence
When someone drops Thierry Frémaux's name, people working in the film world seem to become silent film stars. Is he He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? The extremely eloquent Bertrand Tavernier presides over the Institut Lumière. Though Frémaux is the director there, Tavernier "does not wish to talk about Thierry Frémaux," his production company says.
Journalist Eric Libiot, a member of the French film panel, cites his duty to "confidentiality." Unsuccessful and frustrated, we call the seller-exporter François Yon, who, after careful consideration, sends us to his associate, who prudently sends us on to the producer Paulo Branco.
We call Paulo Branco, who repeats with the tone of an ISIS hostage, "The Cannes Festival is the biggest film festival in the world."
We call the filmmaker Benoît Jacquot, whose three last films were selected in Berlin. He strongly declares, "Cannes is a neurosis. Yes sir, I have the most virulent things to say about the selection mechanisms." Finally! But he immediately adds, "But it's not the right time to say them."
This year, the Coen brothers chair the jury. One seat for two. Might this be the secret sign of a new power balance between the delegate-general and his president? Frémaux explains, "In 2000, when I arrived, Gilles Jacob was already there. He already had an expert knowledge of the Cannes apparatus. In 2015, Pierre Lescure is arriving, but I'm the one already here."