The festival, which was slated to take place May 12-23, is hosted in the seaside resort town of Cannes, about 19 miles from Nice, where a case of the virus was first confirmed in late February. A statement from the organizers suggested that several options were under consideration, including a delay until the end of June or beginning of July.
“As soon as the development of the French and international health situation will allow us to assess the real possibility, we will make our decision known, in accordance with our ongoing consultation with the French Government and Cannes’ City Hall as well as with the Festival’s Board Members, Film industry professionals and all the partners of the event,” the statement said.
The move seemed inevitable, despite repeated statements that the festival would go on from organizers over the past few weeks. On March 8, the French government banned public gatherings of more than 1,000 people while the virus remained a threat.
Most screenings at Cannes, as well as the famous red carpet premieres and the Marché du Film (a film “market” attended by producers, distributors, programmers, and other film industry professionals), take place at the Palais des Festivals, a multi-story building that houses a number of theaters. Some of those theaters are small, but attendees at screenings combined with Marché attendees (which numbered over 12,000 in 2019) would substantially exceed the government’s ban. Even with the possibility of a virtual Marché, the situation had seemed untenable for weeks.
Additionally, the festival is attended by industry professionals and press from around the world, including from countries where coronavirus is rampant. Given that people are attending parties and seeing films for hours per day in enclosed spaces, it’s no surprise the organizers decided to take precautions. (MIPTV, an international TV market event that takes place at the Palais in late March and early April, had already been canceled. The Cannes Lions festival was postponed until August.)
While the festival’s official statement suggested the organizers hope to simply delay the event, it’s possible it could be canceled. The very first year that the festival was intended to be held, in 1939, the event was canceled after one screening due to the outbreak of World War II. The festival didn’t officially start until 1946, after the war’s end.
Cannes has only been canceled once since then, in 1968, when the festival ended halfway through its nearly two-week run. The country was grappling with massive student-led protests against capitalism and imperialism and a crippling nationwide labor strike. The scale of those demonstrations and strikes are legendary in French history. Protests led by young directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, among others, called for the festival to recognize what was going on in the country and stand in solidarity with the workers and students — and after turmoil, the festival ended a week early.
But until now, the festival has been a mainstay of world cinema, launching movies from the world’s most-lauded directors into international renown. (In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite premiered in competition at Cannes and won the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or; nine months later, it won Best Picture at the Oscars.) This year’s delay, or possible cancellation, means the year’s film calendar has been thrown into confusion — all of which is exacerbated by uncertainty around how long the pandemic will last.