The history of the Festivalin the service of cinematographic art

Festival de Cannes, 1947 © AFP

The Festival de Cannes is now the world’s most prestigious film gathering, as well as its most widely publicised cultural event. Today a major forum for film-producing countries, its history, selections and prizes are usually thought to date back to 1946 – the year of the first festival proper. However, the first seeds of the event were actually sown eight years earlier.


In July 1938, the Venice Mostra, the first international competition dedicated to the film world, saw the major pre-war film-producing countries gather together for the sixth time. France was represented with a series of films, and on the jury by the diplomat Philippe Erlanger.
On the day of the Awards ceremony, the jury was unanimous. An American film had captured their hearts, but under pressure from Hitler the Nazi propaganda film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl and the Italian film Luciano Serra, Pilot by Goffredo Alessandrini reaped the ultimate accolade, named the Mussolini Cup. The decision provoked outrage among the members representing democratic countries and France, the United States and Great Britain left the Mostra, vowing not to return.
During his train journey back to France, Philippe Erlanger, thought of setting up an event to replace the Mostra and offer the world a festival that was free of pressure and constraints. On his return, he contacted the authorities. There was no time to waste – a rival French festival was required before the next Venice competition came around.

From September 1938 to May 1939, the initiative became a genuine State affair. Georges Bonnet, the Foreign Minister, was afraid of poisoning Franco-Italian relations, but the Education Minister Jean Zay, and Minister of the Interior Albert Sarraut, supported the idea of a film festival for Europe in which art would no longer be influenced by political manoeuvring. In June 1939, the creation of a film festival in France was announced in the media, supported by various film-producing countries, led by the United States, and scheduled to open on 1st September – the same day as the Mostra, which left only a few months to prepare the entire event.

Cannes: Caught between Venice and Hollywood

France clearly had to create a setting as prestigious as Venice for its rival festival. Out of a list of ten French towns, the choice initially fell on Biarritz on 9 May 1939. But the supporters of Cannes around Georges Prade, a municipal councillor from Paris, and the directors of the Cannes hotels, mobilised and finally ended up winning the event. And so, on 31 May 1939, the town of Cannes and the government signalled the official birth of the International Film Festival, a mere three months before the event’s inauguration date. The ‘Pearl of the Riviera’, a jewel on a coastline often compared with California, began to dream of Hollywood.


The first Festival of 1939 was initially scheduled to take place from 1 to 20 September 1939 in the hall of the Municipal Casino, under the honorary presidency of the father of cinematography, Louis Lumière. An organising committee was set up to manage the event, headed by Georges Huisman, president of the State Secretariat for the Fine Arts.

The emphasis was on the universal spirit of the event: each country would choose its own films to present in Competition, the jury would represent all the participants and all the nations in attendance would receive a Grand Prix, in the spirit of artistic objectivity and absolute impartiality. So as to avoid any further tensions, France invited all film-producing countries, including Germany and Italy. However, in the context of the political crisis that marked the summer of 1939, the two fascist powers declined the invitation and ultimately only nine nations lined up to take part in the first ever Festival, although these included the most powerful countries in the entire film industry.
In August, despite the international tensions, everything was in place for the opening. Local artist Jean-Gabriel Domergue created a first official poster in the form of an ‘Invitation to travel,’ two thousand invitations were sent out, and a transatlantic liner rented by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) docked in the Bay of Cannes, with passengers including the American stars Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks, George Raft, Paul Muni, Norma Shearer and Mae West on board. These distinguished first festival-goers revelled in a heady atmosphere of luxury and glorious sunshine.

And yet the 1939 event would never take place. On 23rd August, as a stupefied world learned of the German-Soviet Pact, most of the tourists fled Cannes. Despite the gravity of the situation, the Festival committee organised a private screening of the only film to feature in the festival, the first ever film in Competition, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by William Dieterle.

The day on which the Festival was to be inaugurated, 1st September, Germany invaded Poland. The opening was postponed by ten days but this decision was soon overtaken by events. War was declared on 3rd September and a general mobilisation got underway. The Festival selection, which never even got off the ground, included films as illustrious as The Wizard of Oz by Victor Fleming, Only Angels Have Wings by Howard Hawks, Union Pacific by Cecil B. DeMille for the United States and Lenin in October by Mikhaïl Romm for the USSR, The Four Feathers by Zoltan Korda for Great Britain, La Loi du Nord by Jacques Feyder, L’Enfer des anges by Christian-Jaque and Julien Duvivier’s La Charrette fantôme for France.

It was only in 2002 that the prizes were finally awarded to these films, during a tribute ceremony for this forgotten selection. Fully 63 years after the event, the 1939 Palme d’or was unanimously awarded to Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific by a Jury presided by Jean D’Ormesson.


In early 1940, despite the declaration of war and national mobilisation, the Cannes authorities, led by Philippe Erlanger, tried to keep the Festival project alive. On the diplomatic front, France first set out to obtain the agreement of Italy, whose position in the conflict was not yet official. To everyone’s surprise, Mussolini accepted, on condition that the French competition did not coincide with the Mostra.
However, it was not to be. On 10 June, the Duce declared war on France and Great Britain, thus postponing ad infinitum an event whose organisation was already severely beset by logistical problems created by the war: a lack of appropriations, disorganised supplies, a shortage of film equipment, and transport conditions that discouraged French and foreign stars from travelling, not to mention the requisition of the Municipal Casino by the army…

It was not until 1946, with post-war France in a benighted state, that the International Film Festival, initially launched nine years earlier by Philippe Erlanger, finally took place for the first time, beginning on 20 September.

« The world threw itself into this first festival in a state of near-intoxication, under a sun that shone constantly until mid-October. »

Philippe Erlanger

The festivities, opened in the gardens of the Grand Hôtel by the American singer Grace Moore, continued throughout the competition, with a host of entertaining events which created a cosmopolitan, festive atmosphere around the first Festivals, with fireworks, torchlit parades, promenades, doves released into the sky, flower battles on the Croisette, air displays, fashion shows and the election of the first Miss Festival, to name but a few…
The organisation of the Competition, based on the principles laid down in 1939, featured 19 countries and an international jury presided by Georges Huisman. While the screenings held in the Municipal Casino were disrupted by technical hitches due to the lack of preparation time, every nation represented left with a Grand Prix and this first Festival finished on a unanimous note of success, from the point of view both of the press and the foreign delegations.

The Festival de Cannes had only come into existence but its story was already beginning to feature the greatest names in the cinema of the day, including Roberto Rossellini, Walt Disney, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, David Lean, Jean Renoir and many others…


While the first few Festivals were primarily society events, in which almost every film that was screened picked up a prize, the sight of stars from all four corners of the globe processing up the famous red steps and the constant swarm of media attention soon turned it into a world-famous, legendary event. In the 50s, the Festival’s popularity exploded still further due to the presence of celebrities such as Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, Romy Schneider, Alain Delon, Simone Signoret, Gina Lollobrigida and Pablo Picasso, who flocked to the new ‘Palais Croisette’* which had been inaugurated for the 1949 season.

However, this was above all the decade in which the Festival was subjected to the vicissitudes of the Cold War. Away from the sequins and the early scandals, the films provided a big screen onto which the Eastern Bloc and the West projected their face-off. In order to avoid diplomatic incidents in terms of the film selection, the organisers added an article to the Festival regulations authorising the withdrawal of a film, under certain conditions. The committee had recourse to this option eleven times during the 50s, with a record in 1956, with no fewer than six films censored. From the following year onwards, the organisers decided to remove the article altogether from the regulations, thus paving the way for a new era in the Festival, in which attention to the films’ cinematographic quality trumped any diplomatic considerations.

Besides the tense climate, which made it difficult for these works to coexist side by side, the Festival in the 50s also had to deal with the emergence of a large number of other French and European competitors, which obliged it to adapt and innovate constantly in order to maintain its supremacy. It was as a result of such rivalry that the 1948 and 1950 events were cancelled due to lack of funds, and that the event was moved to the spring, to be held in May, from 1952 onwards.

« The Festival’s aim is to encourage the development of the cinematographic art in all its forms, and create and foster a spirit of collaboration between all film-producing countries. »


(extract from the Festival regulations, 1948.)

From 1947 to 1954, the jury was made up entirely of French celebrities. with all the selections of the International Competition vying for just one Grand Prix. However, a number of secondary prizes were awarded in various categories: the entertainment prize, the fictional documentary prize, the film story best told in images, a poetic humour prize, the legendary film prize and the explorer’s film. Rewards went in particular to technical innovations with the advent of films in colour and in cinemascope format, but the whimsical nature of the prizes drew much criticism. To counter these broadsides, the Festival authorities returned to a more traditional prize-giving arrangement in 1954 and in 1955, it was a jury made up of foreign celebrities from the film industry* that awarded the first Palme d’or in the Festival’s history to Delbert Mann’s Marty.


Bold selections

In 1959, to mark the establishment of the 5th Republic in France 1959, Culture Minister André Malraux found himself heading the Festival organisation and in charge of approving the selection of French films. Malraux was well aware of developments in the film industry and opened the competition up to a new generation of directors, such as François Truffaut, who garnered a prize for The 400 Blows in 1959. Malraux also pushed through the selection of bold and politically charged works such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and The War is Over (1966) by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker’s Le Joli mai, and above all The Nun by Jacques Rivette (1966), which caused one of the greatest scandals of the day alongside the outcry provoked by Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, The Adventure by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1960 and Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana in 1961.
Around the same time, Robert Favre Le Bret (the Festival’s General Delegate) began to travel the world in order to enrich the selection – a profitable strategy which still works to this day and has enabled the Festival to invite stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Sean Connery to the Croisette, and also to bask in the reflected glory of films such as The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock (1963), This Sporting Life by Lindsay Anderson, The Leopard by Luchino Visconti and 8 ½ by Federico Fellini…

Inbetween art and industry

At the Festival, all eyes were on the films and stars, but for André Malraux, film was also an industry and a business. In 1959, he granted official status to the Marché du film which had been held in secret since 1946 in the cinemas on rue d’Antibes. By welcoming film industry professionals into the Palais and encouraging them to network, the Festival took on a new overt role in promoting the film industry.

May 68: rebellion takes to the stage

In the late 60s, France was beset by a deep social malaise, which boiled over on the night of 10-11 May 1968. Nevertheless, the 21st Festival de Cannes opened on 11 May with a screening of the restored copy of Victor Fleming’s 1939 masterpiece Gone with the Wind. But the event rapidly descended into a forum for meetings and protest. The members of the jury resigned, and several directors withdrew their films. On 19 May 1959 at midday, the Festival was interrupted after Louis Malle, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Berri, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski, and Claude Lelouch prevented the screening of Peppermint frappé by Carlos Saura, clinging to the red curtain on the stage to keep it closed.

On the fringes of the Official Selection, two independent film selections emerged in the 60s, the Critics’ week in 1962 and the Directors’ Fortnight in 1969.


After the uproar and protests of 1968, the Festival organisers came to understand the importance of modernising, in tune with the ideas in vogue at the time, starting with creative freedom in film. The films selected in 1969, largely based around revolutionary themes, captured this atmosphere of protest, as did the awards that year, which went to If by Lindsay Anderson, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and Z by Costa-Gavras.

In 1972, Robert Favre Le Bret became President of the Festival de Cannes and Maurice Bessy took over from him as General Delegate. On taking up his role, he opted to diversify the Selection to encompass other categories of film. This led in turn to the 1973 initiative ‘Perspectives du cinéma français’ and the ‘Les Yeux fertiles’ section promoting films on other art forms. In 1973, the Festival itself further asserted its independence by becoming the sole decision-maker in the Official Selection, whereas until then, the films eligible for the Selection had been designated by their country of origin. In 1976, two new parallel sections were born: ‘L’Air du temps’, featuring films based on current events, and ‘Le passé compose’, for compilation works.

As an association under the 1901 Law, managed by a Board of Directors, the Festival de Cannes was recognised as a public service in 1972.

Meanwhile on stage, as part of the celebrations of 75 years of French film, tributes were paid to Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, who were distinguished with the Légion d’honneur in 1971 and 1972. Among all the dinner jackets, the producers of Woodstock played the role of hippies, Francis Ford Coppola earned a Grand Prix for The Conversation in 1974 and a Palme d’or for Apocalypse Now in 1979, while alongside Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Gérard Depardieu and Robert de Niro were just beginning to make a name for themselves…

In 1978, Gilles Jacob was appointed General Delegate, and began a series of initiatives that would long mark the identity of the Festival – introducing stars to the jury, reducing the duration of the event and the number of films Out of Competition, the grouping of parallel sections within the Un Certain Regard selection, the creation of the Caméra d’or prize for debut films across all categories, and the introduction of surprise films and midnight screenings.


Under the direction of the Gilles Jacob and Pierre Viot, appointed President in 1984, the Festival renewed its determination to seek out new talents and defend freedom of expression, so that films from all four corners of the globe could find a voice at Cannes.
The selections began to feature countries as diverse as the Philippines, China, Cuba, Australia, India, New Zealand and Argentina among others and each year, the competition gave filmmakers an opportunity to earn international recognition alongside renowned professionals. Those years saw the emergence of huge new talents such as Alain Corneau, André Téchiné, Stephen Frears, Leos Carax, Lars Von Trier, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Emir Kusturica.

The roll-call of other already famous names in attendance included Sergio Leone, Theo Angelopoulos, Bertrand Tavernier, Peter Greenaway, Ettore Scola, the Taviani Brothers, Nikita Mikhalkov, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Milos Forman, Francesco Rosi, John Huston, Andrzej Wajda , James Ivory, Andreï Tarkovski, Ken Loach, Andrzej Zulawski, Andrzej Wajda and Akira Kurosawa, who was honoured for Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, the most highly acclaimed Palme of the decade.

In 1987, the 40th anniversary Festival was presided by Yves Montand and paid tribute to the maestro Federico Fellini. The closing ceremony is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. As he was receiving his highly controversial Palme d’or for Under the Sun of Satan, Maurice Pialat, his fist raised, responded to the jeers of the public with a retort that has gone down in history: ‘You don’t like me? Well, let me tell you that I don’t like you either!’

Two years later, in 1989, the first Cinéma & liberté forum brought a hundred directors together in Cannes for a major debate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the anniversary of the Declaration of Human and Citizen’s Rights. They addressed the subject of freedom of expression. Théo Angelopoulos, Bernardo Bertolucci, Yves Boisset, Youssef Chahine, Jerry Schatzberg, Wim Wenders, Emir Kusturica, and Ettore Scola, amongst others, also signed a declaration protesting against all forms of censorship still existing in the world.

A new Palais for a new era

The modern era of the Festival began with a symbolic change of venue. Since the end of the 70s, and given the growing success of the event, the authorities had decided that sooner or later a new Palais would be required. At the end of the 1982 Festival, the triumph of E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial by Steven Spielberg, marked the last screening at the Palais Croisette, which would be demolished in 1988.

The new building, designed by Druet and Bennett, was completed in 1983 and named the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, or the ‘Bunker’ to those in the know. The building was baptised with the screening of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
The new cinema halls, from the Grand Théâtre Lumière to the Claude Debussy auditorium, helped spread the Festival’s influence still further, as did the continued expansion of the Marché du film which became the world’s most important film fair, with over 2,000 exhibitors and 600 daily projections at the end of the decade. Around this time, the procession of the stars up the 24 famous red steps became a genuine Cannes ritual, broadcast by the media around the world.


The awards now included directors from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, stimulated by the opening up of the former USSR, with directors such as Pavel Lungin and Vitaly Kanevsky. The most glittering success of the decade fell to Asian directors: Chen Kaige earned the Palme with Farewell my Concubine, while Zhang Yimou’s To Live and Shanghai Triad also featured among the prizewinners. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster picked up the Jury Prize and the selection of Happy Together brought Wong Kar-wai to prominence. Meanwhile, Cambodian director Rithy Panh picked up a Special Mention for Rice People.

In the West, the boycott of the Festival by the big American players in retaliation for the GATT accords (an image quota which Europe and France wanted to impose in the name of cultural exception) gave American independent cinema a foothold on the Croisette: in 1991, Joel and Ethan Coen garnered the Palme d’or for Barton Fink and three years later, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction dominated the Prizewinners.
The Cannes selections continued to paint a portrait of the era with socially engaged works that sparked debate on the Croisette whenever the cameras focused on history or current events, for example with Land and Freedom by Ken Loach, La Haine by Mathieu Kassovitz, Emir Kusturica’s Underground, Ulysses’ Gaze by Theo Angelopoulos, Jungle Fever by Spike Lee and Welcome to Sarajevo by Michael Winterbottom.

Following the inauguration by Francesco Rosi of La Leçon de Cinéma in 1991, a number of prestigious directors lined up to share their views on their artistic careers and vision of cinema. The first Leçon de Musique was given in 2003 by Nicola Piovani and the first Acting Masterclass by Max Von Sydow in 2004.


To mark the 50th anniversary ceremony, all the Palme d’or-winning directors gathered on stage to award the Palme des Palmes to Ingmar Bergman. In his absence, it fell to Liv and Linn Ulmann, his wife and daughter, to receive the trophy. At the closing ceremony, Youssef Chahine was awarded the 50th anniversary Prize for The Destiny (Al Massir) and for his entire œuvre, from the President of the Jury, Isabelle Adjani. Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami and The Eel by Shohei Imamura were joint winners of the Palme.

In 1998, the decade ended by looking to the future with Gilles Jacob’s creation of a new selection of short and medium-length films from film schools from all four corners of the globe, named the ‘Cinéfondation’. The initiative expanded in 2000 with the opening of the Résidence, in which young directors came to polish their writing and screenplays. 2005 saw the addition of the Atelier, which helps twenty directors per year find funding for their films.

Linn Ullmann & Liv Ullmann © FDC
Linn Ullmann & Liv Ullmann © FDC


The Festival de Cannes ventured into the new era with a changed team. Gilles Jacob was voted President and succeeded Pierre Viot, who had occupied the role since 1985. From 2001 to 2005, he was supported in his role by Managing Director Véronique Cayla and Artistic Delegate Thierry Frémaux. The new management team redirected the focus of the event so as to facilitate exchanges between film countries, and became increasingly aware of the importance of renewal in preparing for the future, particularly in terms of technological advances.

The new millennium would witness the constant expansion of the Marché du Film and the creation of the Village International, a forum for global filmmaking launched in 2000, initially with 12 countries but includes around 60 today.

In 2007, to celebrate the 60th year of the Festival, 33 of the world’s greatest directors gathered together on the stage of the Grand Théâtre Lumière after being invited to take part in the anniversary film Chacun son cinéma, through directing a 3-minute short on the theme of the cinema hall. The anniversary also provided the occasion to reflect on the cinema of the future at a conference which brought together 300 professionals to discuss new digital issues. The event also saw the inauguration of a new cinema hall on the roof of the Riviera, the ‘Salle du Soixantième’, renamed the ‘Salle Agnès Varda’ in 2022.

In July 2007, the Board appointed Thierry Frémaux General Delegate of the Festival. In 2014, the Board appointed Pierre Lescure President of the Festival de Cannes, taking over from Gilles Jacob, who was in turn named Honorary President and President of the Cinéfondation from 1 July 2014 on.


In May 2017, the Festival celebrated its 70th edition with this new pair at its helm. To mark the dawning of a new decade, a hundred-odd artists — including Palmes d’Or recipients, award-winners, Presidents and members of the juries — came together for a once-in-a-lifetime photo call.

Over a 20-year period, Thierry Frémaux lent the event fresh momentum: Cannes Classics was launched in 2004, the Short Films Competition and Short Film Corner were brought together in the dynamic Cannes Court Métrage in 2010, love and passion for film were nurtured with the 3 Days in Cannes scheme in 2019, and the Festival began going green in 2021.

Thierry Frémaux was also committed to ensuring the Official Selection would travel far and wide. Along with the Marché du Film, he launched La Semana de Cine del Festival de Cannes in 2009, an annual event held in Buenos Aires alongside Ventana Sur, and joined up with the Les Films de Cannes à Bucharest initiative spearheaded by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu in 2010. Soon to be named Cannes Film Week, the programme set out to raise Cannes films’ profile around the world, and a Hong Kong edition took place in 2019 too.

In 2020, although the Covid-19 pandemic saw the event cancelled, the Festival continued its work for the film industry by selecting and supporting 56 feature films and 28 short films packaged up under the Cannes 2020 label. The Marché du Film too was forced to reinvent itself, and took place in a 100% virtual edition (Marché du Film Online) that allowed film professionals from around the world to partake in remote events.

Over the past decade, the Palais des Festivals’ screens and the “Cannes family” of faithful attendees of the Festival have seen new talent born and seasoned artists rise, from Bong Joon-ho, Nadine Labaki, Ruben Östlund and Sofia Coppola to Yórgos Lánthimos, Alice Rohrwacher, Xavier Dolan, Maïwenn, Lukas Dhont and 2021 Palme d’Or winner Julia Ducournau.