How did Cannes Become the Centre of the Film World?

Film mural in Cannes, France
Film mural in Cannes, France | James Fenn / © Culture Trip

The current Palais des Festivals et des Congrès has been the home of the Cannes Film Festival since 1982. The fact that an entire building was built especially for a single festival taking place over just two weeks a year highlights how important the event has become. But then, Cannes Film Festival isn’t really like any other festival. . .

Cannes Film Festival

With the exception of Hollywood, there isn’t another place in the world that has become so inextricably linked to the film industry. The local economy not only thrives on it; it depends on it. Stroll into any café or bar in Cannes and the chances are you will see photographs of a wide array of movie stars adorning the walls. So many in fact, that you can never be sure if the image gallery is a line-up of celebrity diners who have previously visited, or just a rather gaudy show to capitalise on the biggest tourist attraction Cannes has to offer.

In many ways it’s a bizarre state of affairs, as Cannes itself is a perfectly picturesque, historic town along the French coast. The old quarter (Le Suquet) is full of winding roads, cobbled streets and quiet little residences. This area, no more than a 15-minute walk from the beach, is not the first image that springs to mind when talking about Cannes. Indeed, from the impressive vantage point of the medieval fortress, one can see the Cannes we all know. Le Palais des Festivals and its red carpet, which is actually painted on when the film festival isn’t running lest anyone forget, dominates the foreground.

‘Pulp Fiction’ mural

Now in its 71st year, the Cannes Film Festival is still one of the biggest events in the movie calendar. Other film festivals are older and have grown in stature in recent decades, but none can match Cannes for sheer impact on the industry or wider public.

In 1932, Jean Zay, the then French Minister for National Education and Arts, set about establishing the festival with the backing of British and American sponsors. The plan was to establish an event to counteract the perceived fascist leanings of the Venice Film Festival, but with a sense of bleak irony this idea was scuppered by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Outside the Palais des Festivals

The first festival proper was held in 1946 and was known as ‘Festival du film de Cannes’ shortly thereafter. Beset by technical issues, such as films being shown in reverse or even upside down, there was still significant interest in the festival, with 21 countries screening films. French historian Georges Huisman sat as jury president and 11 films tied for the top prize.

The current home of the film festival is the aforementioned Palais des Festivals, which has a vast 25,000 square feet of floor space and also plays host to several conventions and events outside of the May film festival. The first building was constructed in 1949 and the most recent version rebuilt in 1982. It remains as it was then, and its age is now starting to show. One thing that is undeniable, however, is how the space makes use of its position on one end of the main promenade in Cannes, the famous Croisette.

A real boom in the profile of the festival came in the 1950s and 60s, a period considered to be a golden age of cinema and one best remembered for the quality of its films as well as numerous scandals and celebrity affairs. All this added to the glamour of the festival as Cannes proved to be a showcase for everything that was good and bad in the global film industry. Hollywood stars adored the location, regularly turning up to the annual event in super-yachts and staying in the grandiose hotels that began to spring up in the surrounding streets and avenues.

After the festival

In 1978, the Caméra d’Or and Un Certain Regard prizes were introduced. These awards are still seen as two of the most prestigious in the film world (alongside the Palme d’Or, which was established in the 1950s) and have managed to avoid the accusations of political manoeuvring that have dogged the Oscars. That said, there are still claims that the prizes aren’t always handed out purely on merit. The types of film that win are often left-field selections and can be seen as tapping into agendas, such as Michael Moore’s notorious victory for his anti-war movie Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).

Other issues have arisen in recent years. There is a clearer divide between Hollywood and Cannes now. The celebrities and A-listers have been relegated to showing their films out of competition. The festival still serves as a high-profile platform for premieres and showbiz galas, but the competition strands are now seen to be more elitist.

Elsewhere, Cannes has picked a fight with Netflix, and the streaming service might just prove to be an opponent that could seriously harm the festival. The spat has been predictable but not one that will be easily resolved. Organisers are keen to maintain the integrity of cinema and as such have banned Netflix titles from competition. In retaliation, Netflix have pulled their films from the festival entirely, something which is slightly problematic considering these films are now on par with the biggest and best that any country can offer. The sheer buying power of Netflix means that it can also subvert the course of the festival, as occurred this year when Netflix bought the rights to two of the festival’s award-winning films and narrowly missed out on the purchase of the opening film. Cannes might have bitten off more than it can chew.

Even so, Cannes is unlikely to be under any long-term threat. Its place and name is just that ingrained into the psyche of the film industry.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article