Day 2: Building an Audience at Cannes

Like filmmaking itself, selling a movie at Cannes is an intense labor of love

Red theater chairs
Filmmakers show their work in theaters at Cannes in hopes of picking up international distributors. iStockphoto

The Palais des Festivals is completely transformed. No sawdust, no broken glass, and, above all, no visible plywood. The festival rises like a butterfly from yesterday's mess, or maybe more like a moth. Now it's not a building but an airborne living being, batting drying wings around a very fickle flame.

This whole thing is like a film itself, built on the most common of movie themes: love versus money. Except that in the movies love is usually represented by a young idealistic champion and money by the greed of cynical age, whereas at the Cannes Film Festival the conflict between those two drives happens within the hearts of each of us who has a film to sell.

It's certainly that way for Suzanne and me today, as our movie, "Saving Luna" makes its appearance in the enormous Marché du Film, the hive behind the festival, where hundreds of people are trying to start buzz about four thousand films.

Our film, like so many, is a labor of love. We made it to honor the life of a little wild killer whale whom we knew and cared about as a friend, and the underlying themes about the nature of friendship and its persistence through time and among species are so important to us that creating the vehicle to carry them has absorbed us for years.

Yet here in the poster-lined halls of the Marché, we talk about advances, cross-collateralization, the deep pockets of investors, and potential return. If we're honest, we know that we must make money on this film; we need to pay off our debts and get some time to breathe and think about what we learned from this experience and how to make the next film. Yet that need seems crass compared to the idealism that drove us to make the film, that it seems unworthy of the film itself and almost a betrayal of the life we are working to honor.

In some people here that idealistic commitment is for a cause or for a story, or is simply a passion for the demanding and magnificent art of film. But the bottom line is very similar among us. One activist I talked to last night said all he really wanted to do with his film was put it on the Internet where everyone could see it, but if he did, he would financially ruin himself and most of his friends.

That tension within us between what feels like love and what feels like greed puts a different kind of buzz, like a high-tension wire, in our lives as we navigate this place, and maybe has a lot to do with how filled the days are with highs and lows.

On this first festival day, life for us goes dazzlingly bright, then dark. Not quite a horror show, but certainly a melodrama.

First thing in the morning we manage to get into the press screening of the festival's opening film, another masterpiece of animation and storytelling by Disney Pixar's, "Up."

What a satisfying, pleasant movie, with a surprising old-guy hero whose previous life and loss are described in a lovely early section without dialogue, told, as Variety says in the daily paper it puts out for the festival, "in a manner worthy of even the most poetic of silent-film directors."

The film is sweet and uplifting, and we notice one young woman outside the theatre still wearing her 3-D glasses in the hallway, as if reluctant to give up the charm. But then we proceed directly to a moment of hard truth.

"Saving Luna" is about to get the first of what will eventually be two showings during the course of the festival, in a little theatre behind the many booths of sales people. This is our big moment. This is one of the main reasons we have come to Cannes, to show the film to international distributors.

The theatre has about 60 seats. We hope for ten or fifteen distributors, but our film, like most, shows itself best before a real audience of a lot more, because it's funny and needs a laugh track. So we go outside to mingle with the crowds in front of the Palais, in a bizarre exercise in audience stuffing, and try to give tickets away.

It's awful. We cruise through the crowd listening for spoken English, because we have no subtitles on the film. We feel like con artists or stalkers, and when we talk to one man and woman they think we're trying to scalp the tickets. "No, no! they're free, they're free!" They turn us down, still suspicious. A young Italian woman seems interested, but her charming father doesn't want to sit through 90 minutes he won't understand. Finally we give it up, sit on a wall and just watch the crowds, defeated. Maybe we can accept some crassness in ourselves, but this is just too much.

We go in. "Saving Luna" is about to start. But there are not 15 distributors here to see it. There are not ten. There are two. The little theater is almost empty. Oh, no!

We sit through the film. About seven more people come and go. We have been warned that screenings are often almost empty, and our agent has said that most of his contacts will be looking at the film on DVD. But this? Ouch! Gloom washes over us. I watch the film with jaundiced eyes, seeing new problems in the structure, the editing, the words.

But then something happens. When the film ends, one of the two people left in the theater simply smiles at us and leaves. But the other stays. He stays in his seat as the credits roll and as the screen goes dark. When the lights come up, he still sits there. I walk down to talk to him, and he looks up, tears in his eyes. And he gives us a gift.

"That was one of the best documentaries I have ever seen," he says.

Oh! How can I still feel bereft? This is what filmmaking is all about, the building of that connection between one life and another across the space between screen and audience. All the time in Cannes I know our hearts will be pulled this way and that by love and money, but when something like this happens, you know where your loyalty lies. Money is just paper that gets you hardware, but moving one stranger to care about the little whale who meant so much to us is like lifting the sky.

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