The truth about the world's most ruthless film festival: Cannes does because Cannes can

The stairway to heaven in the film world has 24 steps, all shrouded in red. These are the steps to the Palais, the heart of the Cannes Film Festival, or as it is properly known, the Festival de Cannes. No mention of film, in fact. As the Sydney Film Festival prepares to open this week, it seems a good time to mention some inconvenient truths about the world’s biggest and most glamorous film festival, by way of comparison.

Cannes is not what it seems. There’s a certain ruthlessness behind the glamour, and a few dirty secrets. No other festival operates like Cannes, because they can’t. Cannes can, because Cannes is powerful. And like any powerful institution, it is Darwinian and open to corruption. There is even a thriving black market for tickets and parties, with astonishing prices paid (up to $5000 for a major film, it was reported this year).

To climb those 24 steps is the dream of many people. During the festival, which ended last Sunday, I did it daily, courtesy of press accreditation. Each day I would pass fans perched on ladders they had chained to the barriers for the duration. They come to see the stars, who flutter through several times a day, yielding pictures of astonishing beauty and glamour. Each female star will look like a million dollars, wearing a dress and jewels loaned by Harry or Giorgio or one of the other labels spending millions on profile at Cannes.

The stars will pose for a phalanx of 500 press photographers, arrayed on both sides of the red carpet. These are required to wear dinner suits in the evening, to keep the tone high. That means photographers have to haul a dinner suit or dress as well as their gear, and change halfway through the day. If they’re doing TV, they have to have an expensive, heavy tripod. It’s a way of keeping out the amateurs.

Getting into the Palais, I am bag-searched and metal-wanded about 20 times a day. There is a lot of queueing for the 4000 accredited journalists, sometimes in the rain. At every turn, we are scrutinised by a huge army of staff in tan suits. I call these the ‘camp guards’. One of them refused a colleague entry to a gala because he judged her outfit not quite good enough. Only at Cannes.

If this is the most glamorous film festival, it is also the most authoritarian and hierarchical. Dante would have loved it. I have a pink pass, ranked at number 3 in the pecking order. It is accorded to daily metropolitan press. That’s a really good pass, but it would be better if it had a yellow dot. Those are for trade magazine reviewers and the royalty of the critical world. David and Margaret have dots, of course. Another friend who runs one of the most powerful festivals in the world does not. That’s Cannes: it can be spiteful, as well as arrogant.

It’s also a club. Some directors are represented year after year in competition, whether their film is any good or not. Cannes has its pick of the best films in any year, but the competition always has some dogs, because of tradition and the deals that director Thierry Fremaux must do in order to secure the stars who feed the red carpet monster.

Cannes is a very French festival, so very Catholic. A Canadian friend calls it the Vatican’s idea of a film festival. The yellow dots are the archbishops; my level makes me a bishop, but there is a level above the yellow dots. Those with a white pass are cardinals, and can probably walk on water. The difference is that Cannes is less democratic than the Vatican because no-one gets to vote for pope.

Above ground, Cannes celebrates film as an art form, rather than a business, hence the dinner jackets. Beneath the palais, there is another Cannes, an immense maze housing the film market. There are 10,000 worker bees down there during the festival, selling titles like Bikini Swamp Girl Massacre and Bunny the Killer Thing. The glamour above puts a shine on all this commerce, hiding it from public view, but the market is what keeps Cannes going.

If the money stops coming, and it could, Cannes will wane. The reason is that digital is changing everything. Buyers and sellers don’t have to come to Cannes now unless they want to; they can just send each other emails and internet screening keys. This year’s market was quieter than usual, with fewer deals on fewer films, according to the trades. It might be nothing, or the start of a trend.

The Sydney event, which I ran for ten years, has none of these traits. It really is about the art, because it relies on ticket buyers for most of its budget. Some deals are done, but most of the buyers are too knackered and broke after Cannes to spend freely. For lovers of film, that’s a good thing. The commerce warps the programming at Cannes, from the selection of films for competition, to the make-up of juries. The French government provides half of the $30 million budget, so films with French money often dominate the official selection.

Sydney now has a successful competition, attracting good films. Sydney has a red carpet too, and something that Cannes would love, the gorgeous State Theatre. Nor does anyone judge what you’re wearing. It’s true that Cannes is fabulous, in the sense of being outside real life, but Sydney is more fun.