Lee Thomas at Cannes 2014

We caught up with lecturer and film producer Lee Thomas and asked him for his insight into the world that is the Cannes Film Festival.


“Inspiring people to see films, make films, and love films”

was how Festival Director Gilles Jacob once described the scope and ambition of the Cannes Film Festival.


I’ve been coming to the Festival and Market since 2000. That first time I’ll never forget as Film4 had just green-lit our first feature “Crush” for a summer shoot in the Cotswolds. We were sent to Cannes so that director John McKay and I could hang out with our lead actress, Andie MacDowell. I know, life is tough! We were fresh out of film school and this all seemed like an amazing coup for us. We kept pinching ourselves at the good fortune. But more importantly than I ever realised at the time – this was also an opportunity for the sales team at Film4 to promote Crush to potential foreign buyers and to use us and the cast for meetings and publicity events. It’s the film business after all, and most financiers need to make some money back!


The following year we were back for our world premiere. Like many films, Crush was screening in a side bar of the festival but not in competition. It had pre-sold many territories including Germany, Spain, France and Australia, but we were still after a US sale, and one or two others. Limos, red carpets, and an amazing after screening party up in the hills with fireworks and champagne made the experience everything I imagined it could be…


I then skipped the following year before I then became Head of Production at Screen Agency SWM and it was time to go again. This time with a different hat on. Debbie Isitt’s “Confetti” was our first investment so I attended to support the film, approve negotiations if it sold, and also to talk to people about our funds. Confetti sold to Fox for a good sum taking us instantly into profit after a 5 hour negotiation. I remember shaking hands on a deal in a tent with Michael Winterbottom and his producer Andrew Eaton to collaborate on their next film “The Road to Guantanamo”. Suddenly I was going to more meetings, and doing a lot of networking, but watching no films, in order to attract investors and film-makers to our region and promote West Midlands talent to other financiers.


So why didn’t I go before 2000 and why did I skip a year, and several others since? Cost aside, it’s because the best advice I got was to only go to Cannes when you have a very clear and specific purpose in mind, and not just to “hang out” and “soak up the atmosphere”. It can be a very broad purpose but whatever you do you need one. Maybe your film has been produced and you are invited to support the sales efforts like we were, or perhaps you decide you want to catch up on world cinema and watch at least 3 films per day for your own education. Or, you are a British producer with a European co-production in early development and you want to go and find and secure a co-producer for your project. Basically you want something measurable and achievable so that you don’t succumb to the inevitable low morale when you get turned away from your umpteenth party, or catch sight of a friend walking up the red carpet in a long evening gown and wondering why it’s so unfair that you were not invited up there with them! Basically it’s very easy to compare yourself unfavorably to others and in this sense, having some structure helps get around all that.

Alternatively, perhaps if you are just starting out in the business, maybe the best way to go is to get some experience / knowledge of the market and film business by being an intern. This is a GREAT way to add some structure to your time and enable you to network, find your way around the town and the business without the fear of going into melt down / depression. If I was starting over, this is exactly what I would try to do first.


The fact is, Cannes is now the largest and most prestigious film festival and market in the world and what you come up against when you arrive there is a festival with a deep history and love of cinema combined with a fairly undiscerning and cut-throat market that needs to make money and distribute crowd pleasing films to worldwide audiences. Finding a way to be an intern, for example through BCU’s MA Distribution and Marketing programme, is one way to really get inside the festival’s alter ego, the market. It’s not all glamour, but judging by the experience of this year’s students with placements in some of the world’s leading companies, the insider view is invaluable.


But why does Cannes have such a reputation? Well, for a start – think of these directors: Scorcese, Copola, Wenders, Jane Campion, Quinten Tarentino, Steven Soderbergh…  they have all won The Palm d’Or for films ranging from Taxi Driver and the Piano,  to Pulp Fiction. That’s quite a glamorous list, and one of the biggest self-evident reasons why the festival attracts so many cineasts, buyers & sellers, braggers and celebrity tourists  – all hoping for some of the sparkle to rub off on them.


All that’s left now is to wonder who will win this year… and there is not long to find out !