Monday Prescriptions – How To Be A Cannes Success Story

Hello Film Doctor friends.

As we count the days down to the Cannes Film Festival & Market, we are all ready with another Cannes-dedicated Monday Prescription

This week, the Film Doctor team have designed a “How To Be” post – one where we track the ‘journey to success’ of recent Cannes award-winners & prominent film industry figures (you might remember last year’s 2-part “How To Be Ang Lee” or “How To Be Christopher Nolan” from 2012).

Today we ask “How can one be a Cannes Success Story?”

Let’s start by looking at the winners & accolade-bearers of 3 editions of the Cannes Film Festival.

 Film Doctor - Cannes

2012 – The Story of Michael Haneke, Benh Zeitlin and Cristian Mungiu

Michael Haneke grabbed the 2012 Palme d’Or for “Amour”, his second “golden palm leaf” (first being for “The White Ribbon”) and fourth Cannes entry.

Haneke started his “Cannes journey” in the 1970s first as a film critic, an editor and debuting as a TV Director. It was a long road – his first feature film didn’t come until the age of 46, with “The Seventh Continent” (1989).  It wasn’t until 2001, however, that Haneke first got serious industry recognition, stealing the Cannes spotlight with “The Piano Teacher”


Benh Zeitlin was awarded the Camera d’Or prize for first features with “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”.

Zeitlin made the movie on a $1.8 million shoestring in southern Louisiana with hand-held 16-millimeter cameras, jury-rigged sets, untrained actors and a grass-roots collective of artists from around the country. More importantly, Zeitlin worked with like-minded people he’d met at uni, during his time studying in film program: “Beasts…’s Producers Dan Janvey and Michael Gottwald, as well as the film’s Special Effects Ray Tintori, were all members of the so-called “Court 13” collective. The screenplay was written by Zeitlin and his long-time friend Lucy Alibar, whom he met as a teenager at a writing camp. “Beasts…” script was religiously redrafted and perfected at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Labs. This is where the final version of the project came to life.

Before “Beasts…” Benh took the animation path. Zeitlin’s graduation project, “Egg”, a surrealist take on the “Moby Dick” in stop-motion animation, won the Slamdance 2005 Best Animation Short Award.  After graduation, Zeitlin spent time in the Czech Republic and apprenticed under animators, working with the renowned Jan Svankmajer. During the summer of 2005, Zeitlin more or less lived on a park bench in Prague, trying and failing to find the right place to shoot a short film about two lovers—one above the water and one below. While following the devastating path of Hurricane Katrina, Zeitlin had a Eureka moment: He would tie the story to the storm. So he and Court 13 made their way to New Orleans to make Glory at Sea, a heartfelt fantasy about a group of mourners who build a raft out of debris and rescue their loved ones trapped beneath the waves. Glory premiered at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival in Austin. The crew returned to New Orleans for “Beasts…”.


Director Cristian Mungiu


The 2012 ‘Screenplay’ award went to Cristian Mungiu for “Beyond The Hills”, a story of a friendship between two young women who grew up in the same Romanian orphanage.

This comes 5 years after Mungiu first made a Cannes ‘splash’, with “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” – a project no one expected to win. But the story of a college student trying to arrange an illegal abortion for her friend in 1980s Romania not only won the Palme d’Or, but also went on to make an impressive sum in box office returns.

Mungui started as an English literature graduate before working as a teacher and journalist and then going back to study Film Directing. He cut his teeth on several horror shorts before shooting his first feature in 2002, Occident and then 4 Months, 3 Week and 2 Days in 2007.



2011  – The Story of Pablo Giorgelli

In 2011 “Las Acacias” brought Pablo Giorgelli the Camera d’Or for first feature. The film came out from the Critics Week section of the festival and was a 10 years long journey in the making – and it turns out, it wasn’t even the project that Giorgelli originally set out to make! Following the Argentinian economic crisis in 2001, Pablo found himself out of work for a very long time; his father got ill; Giorgelli got divorced; all of which largely influenced the film’s topic – the loneliness & alienation of one man – but also meant that the Director only started writing the script in 2005 and finished the post-production just a few months before Cannes. As Pablo has shared himself:

There was this other film I was working on for ten years, which I never got to make. Well, not yet. Back in 2001 I had a huge crisis in Argentina. I lost my work, I divorced with my wife, my father got ill, and I found myself nearly homeless. I stopped working on this project, but all of a sudden, I got the idea for Las Acacias and it really shook me; I realised that I needed to do this all the way. Las Acacias speaks about this moment of difficulty, the moment of one’s suffering. Even though the film is fictional, it reflects on my life, and the emotions portrayed are emotions of my own, that of solitude… If the film is moving it is because it speaks to the heart more than anything else. All we need to do is feel.” (P. Giorgelli for, 2011)


Giorgelli had studied Film Direction in Buenos Aires, at the Film University headed by Manuel Antín. He had also studied acting, editing and screenwriting. Prior to winning the prestigious Cannes award, Pablo made his name in the Argentinian film industry, as an Editor – most notably, for “Moebius” (1995), directed by Gustavo Mosquera and “Solo Por Hoy” (2001) by Ariel Rotter. The screenplay of “Las Acacias” won the “Best Unpublished Script” accolade at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema  2007.  With this recognition, the project was then awarded a post-production fund. How did “Las Acacias” end up at Cannes? According to its Director, by pure chance. Giorgelli found himself waiting for the same delayed flight as Jean-Christophe Berjon – the creative director of Critic’s Week. They started talking and Giorgelli ended up giving Berjon a copy of the film on the spot. Two months later, Berjon wrote back, requesting a subtitled version, so that he could watch the film with his team. In April 2011 Giorgelli and his team received the good news that “Las Acacias” is among the 7 films shortlisted for ‘In Competition’.

“Las Acacias” was picked up for theatrical distribution in 6 territories: Norway by Arthaus, France by Bodega Films, United Kingdom by Verve Pictures, Spain by Festival Films S.L., Greece by One From The Heart, USA by Outsider Pictures.



2010 – The Story of Apichatpong Weerasethakul

The 2010 Palme d’Or winner was the Thai fantasy drama “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” . Notably, its Director, Apichatpong Weerasethakulhad been a “Cannes regular”: years before the big accolade, his films won Cannes recognition – “Blisfully Yours” was granted the Un Certain Regard in 2002, while “Tropical Malady” got Prix du Jury in 2004.

Weerasethakul has been making films & videos since the early 1990s. He has a degree in Architecture from Khon Kaen University and a Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Alongside his feature films, Weerasethakul has made his name in Thailand with art installations.


SPECIAL MENTION: The Lunchbox” made headlines in 2013, as India’s biggest international success of recent years. The film not only received the Critics Week Viewer’s Choice (aka Grand Rail d’Or) award, but also nabbed a deal with Sony; got sold to 7 territories; recovered all of its budget expenditure & minimum guarantee.

Film Doctor - The Lunchbox 


So what are the overall ‘pointers’ for hitting the jackpot at Cannes?


The Story Matters

Cannes Film Festival is a haven for thought-provoking – and, often, controversial – stories: last year’s award-bearer, “Blue Is The Warmest Color” as well as “Taste of Cherry”, “No One Knows About Persian Cats”, “Antichrist”, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, “Elephant” are only a handful of examples.

If it’s not a controversial topic, then character-driven stories get more attention. Stories that show people at their strongest/lowest/weakest/scariest/emotional, etc.; memorable characters, that steal scenes.


Names or no names?

For the Market part of Cannes, having named cast hugely increases your chances of selling the completed product or finding funding partners for the package.

In terms of films in official festival selection or in competition, one doesn’t need to have internationally recognised named actors (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Uncle  Boomnee, Amour), but a Director’s name is paid attention to. Firstly, Cannes Film Festival is where many working auteurs have been/will be premiering their projects: think, Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”, 2002),  Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”, 2012), the Coen Brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”, 2013). Secondly, unlike Berlin Film Festival or Sundance, Cannes Film Festival is not really the place where absolutely raw talent can shine – it’s a place where first-timers can be seen.

Which brings us to the point of…


…being on the film industry radar

Having a previous record in the film industry definitely boosts chances of going large at Cannes. You can see the reasoning fairly easy: a). having your previous work screened/showcased at other reputable film festivals & markets makes your current project more familiar to the judges and/or a “hotter” title for the buyers, b). “tried & tested” filmmakers, i.e. ones that have already won something or been nominated/selected for other major festivals make a safer bet. Furthermore, there is an unwritten rule of keeping absolute first-timers largely in the “Out Of Competition” section of the Festival – except, of course, for the designated “Camera d’Or” award.

So make sure you’re entering Cannes with some credentials and not punching well above your weight. It doesn’t mean Cannes is off bounds if you’re presenting your very first project – you can always submit a short film to the Short Film Corner section, Out of Competition, or aim for the debut award. In addition, if you’re attending the Marché du Film, you can always showcase your project as part of the market screenings. However, do you really want to take your very first project straight to Cannes? The reality is it might not get shortlisted for the In Competition strands of the Festival, simply because you’d be faced up against second, third, X-th projects, from people who’ve been in the game a tad bit longer. What we’re suggesting is letting your career “mature” – have yourself shortlisted elsewhere, build a portfolio, gather some industry attention – and then offer the right project to Cannes. If you play it clever and gather yourself some “Official Selection” reefs from other reputable festivals, you’ll double your chances of getting attention at Cannes for the next one.


Not Novices

None of the aforementioned past Cannes success stories were achievements of complete novices – on the contrary, each Director’s journey we’ve discussed is one of a slow brewing in the industry until “the big Cannes break”. With the example of “The Lunchbox”, it was the team behind it that propelled the project forward. The film had no A-list cast and no mind-blowing budget, but the Director, Ritesh Batra, has been on the radar for a few years now, having shorts in past editions of Sundance and Tribeca Film Festival. The Lunchbox” also benefited from a great team of established Producers, being a co-production between India, France and Denmark.

“Sleeping Beauty” Julia Leigh might be a first-time director, but her mentor for the project was no other than Jane Campion

We are not, by any means, saying “Don’t submit your film to Cannes” – but we’d like you to submit the very best film in the very best way you can.


‘Monday Prescription’ No. 104 – A Cannes festival success often boils down to a few common denominators: what you’re offering (story, package), how you’re offering it (presentation, realisation), who you are offering it to (the film industry people that get behind it).

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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