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The Cannes Film Festival Can Be a Pretty Miserable Place

Cannes is essentially just self-congratulation wrapped in lies and other people’s misery. While the festival supposedly exists to celebrate cinema as the most palatable form of high art, it’s really just a chance for the powerful to plod around...

If you already hate entertainment news, prepare to spend the next two weeks being inundated with even more bullshit than normal. Yesterday was the start of the 67th annual Cannes Film Festival—an event touted as the pinnacle of sophisticated cinema, the place where stars are born and a bunch of old white guys with goatees and yachts dictate what pop culture is going to look like for the next 12 months.


Much like the movie industry's other annual backslap bash—the Academy Awards, where multimillionaire actors are routinely praised for their "brave" portrayals of real-life brave people—Cannes is essentially just self-congratulation wrapped in lies and other people's misery. While the festival supposedly exists to celebrate cinema as the most palatable form of high art, it's really just a chance for the powerful to plod around exercising that power, and the underlings to do just about anything to get their share.

The first time I attended the festival, I had just started an internship at a major movie studio. At the time, I hoped it would lead to a long career in film. Whenever I tell my friends that, during my time there, I made it onto the cover of the Hollywood Reporter and was featured on E!'s Wild On! show, they all think it's the coolest thing in the world. But that's because I only tell them part of the story. Here's how that goes:

It was 2001, one year since I graduated from film school. I'd taken a job at one of America's largest art museums—where I'd been directing a children's film—when I got an email from my old film teacher telling me about an internship opportunity with a few major studios at Cannes. Since my dream at the time was still to move out west and work in Hollywood, I jumped at the chance and asked my boss at the museum for a sabbatical. He granted me the break, and I was accepted into the internship.


The author (center) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001

When I arrived in Cannes, I was put into shared housing with some other interns. But while most of them had been slotted into odd jobs around the festival I was granted a coveted position with 20th Century Fox, working under the head of international PR and Fox's lead publicist."

My days were spent doing the gopher's work: making phone calls or delivering invites across town to some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Sometimes I would actually meet the stars, but most of the time someone from their entourage would answer the hotel-room door when I showed up, snatch the invitation I was delivering, and slam the door in my face.

The evenings were a lot more fun. My internship had given me the connections to get invites to some of the festival's hottest premieres and, more importantly, the after-parties. The first was for Moulin Rouge, which opened the festival. I took Darcy, an old film-school friend who was also interning at Cannes, as well as a few of the guys living with me.

The author (left) before the Moulin Rouge party

We got our tuxes on and shuffled across the red carpet like the Brat Pack if they hung out with people who play computer games for a living rather than the Mafia. I'd like to say I wasn't corrupted by my temporary and wholly insignificant piece of power, but I was—a beautiful girl overheard me talking to my friends while we were waiting outside and, learning that I had an extra ticket, pretended she was into me. I invited her along, which turned out to be a mistake. To no one's surprise, she ditched me immediately.


The after-party itself is what I imagine Diddy's parties looked like when he was still wearing gold crowns and hanging out with Paris Hilton. There were live can-can dancers, acrobats, circus performers on stilts, and men breathing fire. It was a Time Out writer's wet dream. Any drink you wanted was yours. The food was delicious and, most importantly, free. And virtually every celebrity and industry bigwig who mattered was there; you could reach out and touch them if you were that way inclined (and wanted to freak them out and ruin any chance you might ever have of getting into the business).

The birthday cake at Hugh Hefner's 75th birthday party

On one evening over the next ten days, I attended Hugh Hefner's 75th birthday party and watched as he tried to keep tabs on all seven of his girlfriends. On another night I went to the BMW party, where I bumped into Jesse Jackson, one of America's greatest civil-rights campaigners (I extended my hand to introduce myself and he shook it, pretended to know who I was, and said, "Yes, good to see you again").

The Lord of the Rings party with the sets flown in from New Zealand? I was there. The Jamaican Film Commission party? It's where I was crowned a citizen of Jamaica by the then prime minister. There was even one party that I didn't remember until two months later, when I saw myself on TV, fully dressed in a tux, standing on the mast of a pier jutting into the Mediterranean and surrounded by partiers shouting at me to jump. According to the video footage, that's exactly what I did.


That's the tale I tell my friends—the Hollywood version of the Hollywood story. But it's not the whole story.

That part takes in the seedier side of an industry that uses interns as mules to deliver whatever the stars want to their rooms (no, not me, and no, not 20th Century Fox). An industry where you can bump into, at the time, America's sweetest sweetheart, physically convulsing in the corner of a room because she's done too much blow, with no one offering help. An industry where entitlement is rampant and shutting your mouth and forgetting what you saw is commonplace.

Jesse Jackson at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival

I was headed out to a party one night when I saw an intern in the apartment block with a script under his arm and a smile on his face. I asked him what was up, and he said he had been at one of the Promenade de la Croisette's hotel cafés for lunch and had been fortunate enough to meet and strike up a conversation with one of Hollywood's most successful producers.

He told the producer about his movie script and the producer was so impressed that he asked the intern to bring it by his hotel room in the evening, where they could discuss it. Cannes is more than a festival—it's a marketplace where hopefuls flock in the hope of selling their scripts and acting talents. In this instance, this intern now had what everyone wanted: an audience with someone powerful who could potentially make his dreams come true. I congratulated him and meant it. He was a nice guy—21 and just out of college—with a deep love of film. I wished him well and watched him hop in a cab.


Over the days that followed, nobody saw him much. Those who did said he wasn't leaving his room—odd, considering he had an internship to fulfill. I decided to stop by his room and invite him out to a party that evening. He opened the door and looked like hell. I asked him how his meeting went, prepared to hear that the producer hated his script and that he was now distraught about his future in film.

He told me something else altogether. The morning after meeting the producer in the hotel room, he said, he woke up naked in the producer's bed. There were empty alcohol bottles and popped pill packs on a table. The producer spoke on the phone while this intern got dressed, and simply handed him back his script when he started towards the door. "Goodbye," the producer said, and continued to talk on the phone, not even looking at the intern as he left the room.

"I'm not gay," the intern told me. I asked if he was drugged, but he just shook his head and started crying. "I don't know what to tell my fiancée," he said.

You only need to spend a couple of weeks on the inside at Cannes to know that this intern's story isn't the exception. It's a place where few dreams are made yet many are promised. It's a place where, for every Jennifer Lawrence, there are 10,000 girls who didn't make it. Where for every one J. J. Abrams there are wannabe directors who mortgaged their houses to make a film, only to find that no distributor will give them the time of day.

The film industry is notoriously cutthroat, and I doubt much of this is news to you—but Cannes really is a microcosm of all of the misery that comes with the glitz you see in the magazines. It's the only place I've been where people will give up everything—even a part of themselves—in an attempt to appease those who have the power to make or break their careers, all for the chance to walk down the red carpet with attractive people who won't ditch them as soon as they're inside.

Michael Grothaus is a journalist whose first novel is about America's addiction to celebrity, explored through a porn addict's involuntary entanglement in the world of sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite. Follow him on Twitter.