May 27–June 3, 1999

cover story

Raising Cannes

12 Days with 27 Penn Students at the Biggest Film Festival in the World

by John Stuart Katz and Joan Saltzman

Editor’s Note: For over 20 years, the University of Pennsylvania has offered a study-abroad program in one of the most glamorous destinations on the planet—the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not only glamorous, it’s unique: Penn is the only university in the world to offer such a program, and Penn-in-Cannes participants are the only students granted free-ticket privileges by the festival on a regular basis.

Hmmm… 20-something undergrads from the sheltered environs of the Ivy League set loose in the biggest, flashiest movie industry hypefest in the world. Amidst ample opportunities to stargaze, sunbathe and party-crash, what do the students learn? And most important, does anyone get a distribution deal?

To find out, we asked the man in charge of this year’s Penn-in-Cannes experience, film prof John Stuart Katz, to keep a diary. Enduring the vagaries of intercontinental communications, not to mention apartment hunts, ticketing headaches and 27 very eager college students, he has obliged, co-writing from the festival with his wife, lawyer Joan Saltzman.

Filmfest vets both, Katz and Saltzman are used to teaming up while scrambling between screenings: They met at the Montreal Film Festival in 1993, introduced by mutual friends. “Then came the Blue Jays and Phillies World Series,” says Katz, “and the rest, they say, is film history.” Since moving to Philadelphia from Toronto, where he was head of York University’s film department, he has done documentary programming for the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, and he and Saltzman, who studied film at NYU, have co-written a screenplay, Katz’s second. It’s called Mickey and Sally, it’s a semi-autobiographical romantic comedy, and the couple, while seeing to the educational enrichment of their charges, also tried to peddle it in Cannes.

Note: Harvey Weinstein, if you are reading this, please have your people call their people.

September 1998

Cannes is eight months off. We’ve got plenty of time to find a hotel room, we think.

Then we start to look.

An e-mail and fax blitz yields dozens of replies announcing in the most polite French that Miramax or Fox has fully booked the hotel, or that the hotel is booked not only for this year but for the next five festivals as well. Some hostelries—not particularly fancy ones—offer us a room for $500, $600 or $700 per night.

We could stay at the youth hostel where the 27 Penn students will be staying, but neither of us has spent one minute in a hostel since our student days more than 30 years ago. We redouble our efforts.

Voilà! An affordable apartment. It sounds too good to be true, located in the most prestigious spot in Cannes between the resort’s two toniest hotels, the Carlton and the Martinez.

In fact, it is too good to be true.

January 1999

A call from the rental agency. The apartment is no longer available. Nothing they can do.

Panic sets in. If the market was so tight in September, how will it be in January? Visions of two middle-aged people in a youth hostel. (At least we have Birkenstocks and backpacks.) We call some Parisian friends who miraculously locate a studio apartment for us just steps from the Palais, the main film venue.

We have our fingers crossed that our amiable landlord doesn’t wise up before we arrive.


We jump through all the Cannes hoops to apply for our festival passes. Each application is fraught with warnings—sign here or else, don’t apply for two passes for the same person on pain of cancellation of both. We send ours via Fed Ex and pray for the best pass possible. Will they really believe that we are Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman? Phyllis Kaufman, artistic director of the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, has asked us to scout films for next year’s Philadelphia festival; she writes a letter on our behalf to say we’re programmers, which ought to help.

Application deadline for students to apply to Penn-in-Cannes was mid-February. Elizabeth Sachs, administrator of Penn Summer Abroad, passes the 50 or so applications on to John. Many more students are clamoring to go to Cannes than the program can accommodate. John chooses a diverse group of students, some of whom have film experience, some of whom know French: 24 from Penn, and one each from Boston University, Princeton and the University of Southern California.

April 20, 4:30 p.m.

Penniman Lounge, University of Pennsylvania

The first meeting. The students from Penn and Princeton are there—an eager-looking group, many of whom think they are poised on the edge of one of the great party experiences of their lives. Others have more serious aspirations—selling a script idea, or making contacts that will assure their future in the film industry. But having a great time is not out of the question for them, either.


We pass a disheveled Francis Ford Coppola walking alone on the Croisette and wonder what it’s like for him to be here.


Then John breaks the news. This course will not be a walk on the Croisette (Cannes’ main oceanfront drag). They can’t just watch starlets and Hollywood blockbusters and hobnob with the Weinstein brothers; there will be strict course requirements. Each student must see two documentaries, a first feature, a film directed by a woman, a film from a country whose cinema they’ve never seen before (Azerbaijan was an example), and a film unlikely to open commercially in the United States. (Last year, the students decided that a must-see film was Godzilla. No such laissez-faire this year.) And each student must keep a daily journal to be handed in while in Cannes. (We have some empathy for that assignment now.) In addition, each student will write a long paper due in August.

The Cannes course is worth one semester’s full course credit. Each student pays $1,536 for tuition and $400 for room and breakfast, plus the cost of travel (which students must arrange on their own). At those prices, kids aren’t likely to spend the whole time in party mode.

The students are given their teal blue Penn-in-Cannes T-shirts, a first this year to tout Penn’s presence in Cannes and a reward for our guest lecturers, since lunch at the Carlton dining room at $100 per person is out of the question.

No one seems to remember at this point how, when or why Penn became the only American university to offer a program in Cannes. In the 1970s the trappings were considerably more lavish: Students were housed at La Napoule, an estate outside of Cannes donated to Penn by Walter Annenberg as a conference center. Penn later gave up La Napoule and the Penn-in-Cannes program as well. It wasn’t until 1983, at the impetus of Elizabeth Sachs and Antonin (Tony) Liehm, a former Penn Slavic languages professor, that the program was resurrected.

Sachs and Liehm, a film enthusiast and a veteran of the Cannes Film Festival since its inception in 1946, restored the program with only seven students. Passes to the Cannes Film Festival were guarded jealously then as well; even wresting seven of them was a coup. Since then, Sachs has convinced the Cannes powers-that-be to steadily increase that number.

She tells us that past participants in Penn-in-Cannes have had their film careers boosted by attendance in the program. One student managed to get a script read by Spike Lee’s production company; another became a festival employee. We wonder how this year’s students, several of whom hope for film careers, will fare. The possibilities are legion, but the competition for the power brokers’ attention is fierce.

Toward the end of the meeting John issues a warning to avoid the paparazzi who might be getting shots of, say, Gwyneth Paltrow or Brad Pitt. Where the international paparazzi are, so are huge crowds. Where crowds are, so are pickpockets, who also come from all over the world to prey on the affluent Cannes crowd. But let’s face it—what red-blooded college students would miss the likes of Pitt or Paltrow for the sake of their wallets?

Our last activity at the meeting is a group shot of everyone in their Penn-in-Cannes T-shirts, the first of what we hope will be many more photo ops, although we know that the others will have more compelling backdrops, like the Croisette, the Palais and the Mediterranean.

April 20, 10 p.m.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, while we were delivering warnings about paparazzi and course requirements there were high school students in Littleton, CO, hiding from two classmates on a terror spree. A reminder of the real world, offering an interesting prelude to the unreal world of Cannes.

April 24

We pull the Cannes schedule, in French, off the Internet. John Sayles, famous for his independent films, has the only Hollywood studio film in competition. “Un Certain Regard,” one of four out-of-competition events called “sidebars,” is also light on American (as well as European) fare. Many of the films are by first-time directors.

The opening and closing night films are surprises. In the last several years, opening and closing nights at Cannes were reserved for huge Hollywood blockbusters. Rumor has it that Cannes was spurned by George Lucas, who refused to premiere The Phantom Menace at the festival. We thank our lucky stars. The opening film, The Barber of Siberia, three hours long, was helmed by Nikita Mikhalkov, the Russian director of one of our favorite films, Dark Eyes. The closing night film is a British entry, Oliver Parker’s take on the Oscar Wilde play, An Ideal Husband.

American films do better in the Directors’ Fortnight. The list of 23 films includes Summer of Sam, a Spike Lee movie about serial killer Son of Sam, David Berkowitz. Lee has been a darling of Cannes since it showed She’s Gotta Have It in the 1986 Fortnight. Other American directors featured are actors Anjelica Huston and Sofia Coppola, both daughters of legendary filmmakers. This year’s Fortnight also boasts a large Asian presence; one must-see is a comedy directed by a Bhutanese monk.

The Cannes jury is headed by David Cronenberg and includes Holly Hunter, who starred in his film Crash, and Jeff Goldblum, an alum of Cronenberg’s The Fly. Because of John’s long tenure in Toronto, he knows Cronenberg and immediately tries to make plans to have him meet with the students. So far, no definitive answer. Because the president of the jury has many responsibilities during the festival, we are realistic but hopeful.

Another sidebar this year, “34 Films of Love,” is especially appealing to us: We will be celebrating our second wedding anniversary mid-fest.

Along with the initial list of films comes a list of stars likely to be spotted along the Croisette. Among them: Sean Connery, Faye Dunaway, Bill Murray, Jeremy Irons, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, Julia Ormond, Matt Damon, Forrest Whitaker, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich. Hold onto your wallets!

May 10

We take flight, via US Airways, to the behemoth Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. At the Air France terminal, the gawking begins.

First, John Sayles. Then, lots of other people who look either important or famous but we’re not sure who they are. “I wonder who that is” could be the festival mantra; the question is rarely answered.



Viva Italia: (l. to r.,front) Fabian Castro, Adam Kolber, Sharese Bullock, Michelle Holme and (back row) an unidentified student and Katherine Maas pause before the Italian Pavilion.

The Nice airport is a far cry from Charles de Gaulle. We are greeted by palm trees, cascading red and pink flowers, a stunning greenhouse and a camera crew. Is this our 15 minutes? Boom microphones, cameras, people pushing, the crew moving deftly among the luggage carousels. Who’s the attraction?

An amiable cab driver wearing a natty seersucker sport jacket whisks us down a highway offering glimpses of the Mediterranean, with riots of yellow and red wildflowers hugging the hills on either side. We enter Cannes. A city of ochre and rust tones perched on the hills overlooking the Mediterranean. The traffic is snarled. We are jet-lagged. With difficulty the driver finds our apartment.

All is relatively quiet on the Croisette. The calm before the festival storm. Billboards are going up. Film posters adorn the luxurious Belle Epoque hotels. Huge white tents have been erected for the American, British and other pavilions. A merry-go-round adds to the carnival feel, and the beautiful beaches are adorned with more tents and umbrellas. The sheer wealth of the town—Bulgari, Cartier, Yves St. Laurent lining the Croisette and the Rue d’Antibes—is startling.

May 11

The tempo changes. More film posters go up. Workmen are everywhere. A huge sign for The Mummy obscures the exquisite white columns of the Carlton Hotel. More people crowd the Croisette. The excitement is building. Cell phones are chirping incessantly. We are waiting for the students.

May 12

Day One of the festival. The students start to arrive. We spend the better part of the day picking up our passes, arguing about whether they are the right ones and figuring out where to go to get film tickets. We all learn early in the day that the opening night ceremonies, an event where the stars ascend the red carpet stairs to the Lumiere Theater in the Palais, is not in the cards.

Describing and navigating the ticket system for the festival is not easy. Devising it must have been even harder. Letters and numbers on each pass correspond to an office where a participant can go twice per day to pick up movie tickets in the Palais. The Palais is an enormous concrete bunker five floors high and covering more than a square block. It is jam-packed with offices, exhibition space and luxurious movie theaters.

Finding an office, any office, is not easy. On the first day of the festival no one is sure where to send you, so hundreds of people are wandering aimlessly looking for just the right place. Few are finding it. Many are armed with flowers or Godiva chocolates, since it’s important to make a good first impression on the women handing out tickets. (They might give you one, or two, or none—it’s up to them.)

We stand in line for hours only to be told we are in the wrong line. When we arrive at the proper (we hope) line, the woman giving out the tickets is on her way out for coffee. When we come back a second time, she is leaving again. Hours later, she is there, is very amiable and gives us our tickets for the next two days.

We wander around the Marché, the huge Cannes film market, until we find Peter Belsito, whom John met earlier this spring at a Festival of World Cinema party in Philadelphia. Bald, round-faced and almost always in a beige Panama hat, he clearly knows everyone at the Marché. He and his wife, Sydney Levine, own Film Finders, a company that tracks all films in production and sells the information to film buyers. Peter and his assistant Michael Callaway agree to talk to the students tomorrow.

Later in the afternoon, John has the first meeting in Cannes with the students. Most of them are jet-lagged. The frustration of the first day of navigating the huge festival shows on their faces. We assure them that things will get easier as the days go on, although we are not convinced ourselves. The meeting is held at the hostel, a beautiful, sparsely furnished 19th-century building with tiny balconies on the higher floors and a large patio for sunbathing between films. Nothing like the tenement we’d imagined.

We begin to hear stories about contacts the students made on the plane ride over. For instance, there’s the “producer.” A short, handsome, swarthy man in his 40s with a heavy European accent, he’s on the same JFK-to-Nice flight as two of our attractive young women students. When he overhears them talking about Cannes, he tells them his name and hotel and suggests that if they have any problems, they should get in touch with him. He tells them he thinks they are 14 or 15; they say they are 20. When the students run into him on the street he asks if they are having fun and invites them to his hotel to swim. He says they could also shower and nap there and that he would buy them drinks. Uh-oh. He asks them to meet him at 5:30 this afternoon, but because of their better judgment and our obvious alarm on hearing the story, they decide against it. They may see him again over the course of the festival. John tells them that if they see him on the Croisette, they should cross the street.

On the same plane another scenario, seemingly more innocent, unfolds. A man who says he is the publicist for Hugh Hefner and Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance, overhears two of our students talking about Cannes and introduces himself. He seems to know everyone on the plane and even introduces the male student to people from Lions Gate Entertainment. He offers the students internships working for him and Hef during the festival, although he admits the young woman has a better chance of getting the job. Opportunities seem to abound here for the young and the beautiful.

Although we could not score opening ceremonies tickets, we do have tickets for the 9:30 screening of the opening film, The Barber of Siberia. Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes was a wonderful Marcello Mastroianni vehicle. This film is unfortunately a Julia Ormond vehicle, and she can’t act. We finally can’t stand it anymore and leave at 10:30. The poor souls who stay have two more hours to endure.

May 13

We start the day once again in line for tickets. The woman who gives out the tickets is now our friend. Maybe she feels a little bad that every time we came to the office yesterday, she was leaving.

We stop at the American Pavilion and find out that they have a lecture series with the likes of Spike Lee, Harvey Weinstein, Atom Egoyan, Roger Ebert, Anjelica Huston and Ron Howard. Our students are invited. Add the seven visitors John has already invited to address the group and we no longer have to worry whether the students will hear from enough savvy movie-biz types.

We all meet Michael and Peter of Film Finders at their offices. Peter explains that the Marché is a market like any other market, but the products being sold here are films. There are 2,000 films at the Cannes market and 20,000 people here as buyers or sellers. Peter offers to talk to any of the students in either Cannes or his home base of L.A. anytime. Some take him up on his offer immediately.

Michael takes us on a tour of the Marché, first to the section where theater owners can buy seats, projection equipment and refreshment stands. We then see displays of new technology, including a digital projection system that looks like 3D. The students ask Michael where they can get more movie tickets. He replies, “You won’t make any deals sitting in a movie. The deals are made at the parties.” John worries that they will take him literally.

We have a great lunch invitation from one of our speakers, Maurice Kanbar, at the Carlton beachside restaurant. Impish and very low-key, Kanbar is an entrepreneurial wonder. After graduating from M.I.T., he applied for jobs in the film business in L.A. but was turned down, probably because he was overqualified. He went on to become an inventor. His best-known and most lucrative invention was the formula for Skyy Vodka. He still owns the company. He also invented the first device that removes fuzz balls from sweaters; millions have been sold.


Crowd Scene: Onlookers start gathering in the morning for a glimpse of celebrities at night.

He’s wearing another of his inventions: a film-festival vest with special pockets for passports and movie passes. He has always loved movies, and in the ’70s he had an idea for a new kind of movie theater: the multiplex. He built the first one, still run as the Quad Theatres in Manhattan, because he realized that the huge, old movie palaces no longer made good economic sense. He also owns a film distribution company in New York. Only in passing did he let us know that he recently gave $5 million to New York University to establish the Maurice Kanbar School of Film and Television.

The restaurant at the Carlton is a lavish spot directly on the beach with huge blue and white umbrellas and a sumptuous buffet. It’s an oasis of calm in an otherwise wildly hectic city. We look for Harvey Weinstein but he hasn’t arrived yet.

John’s cell phone rings. It’s Sharon Pinkenson, another of our speakers, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and founding producer of the new Sharon Pinkenson Film Project at the Prince Music Theater. Pinkenson, who joins us for lunch, looks completely at home among the impeccably coifed and dressed Frenchwomen in Cannes. She will not only talk with the students, but she will try to get them into two films made in the Philadelphia area that were guided and aided by her film office.

At last, we (along with several of the students) land tickets to a film in competition. Black tie. We have trouble with the dress code because John forgot his suspenders in Philadelphia and his pants need to be jury-rigged with safety pins and a belt. (Luckily, his tux is double breasted and nothing shows.) We arrive at the Palais about 45 minutes early and find ourselves in a throng of cheering Frenchmen who have taken their vacations this week mainly for stargazing. We watch Catherine Deneuve and Guillaume Depardieu (Gerard’s son) leave the screening of Pola X, a Leos Carax film in competition. The excitement is palpable. We finally understand what all the Oscar fuss is about.

Now it’s our turn to mount the red carpet staircase to the Lumiere Theater in the Palais. The Lumiere was appropriately named for the first filmmakers, the Lumiere brothers. French military men stand at attention on both sides of the steps. The band is playing Sephardic music—Amos Gitai’s film, Sacred (Kadosh), is set in an orthodox Jewish section of Jerusalem—and disco.

The crowd is cheering. Flashbulbs. Paparazzi are taking our pictures? Not exactly. People are taking our photos so they can sell them to us the next day for 20 bucks each. Our 15 minutes comes at a price.

We watch Sacred. Finally, a wonderful film. We had almost lost hope after slogging through Barber of Siberia last night and several bombs during the day today. Sacred is a poignant portrayal of the plight of a Hasidic wife who has not borne a child after many years of trying. As we are leaving the Palais we bump into many of the students, who also loved the film. We enlist one of the faux paparazzi to take a picture of all of us on the Lumiere stairs.

Sharese Bullock and Michelle Holme, both Penn students, wangle their way into the opening night party for the market, obviously taking Michael’s advice about the importance of parties. The scene is very Hollywood-on-the-Mediterranean. “We and everyone else seemed to be pretending to be someone they weren’t,” observes Sharese afterward.

(A poised, beautiful African-American student from Brooklyn via Brearley, Sharese would prove her partygoing mettle again during the festival by snagging an invite to a small party aboard director John Singleton’s yacht. Spike was there, of course.)

Cannes’ reputation as the greatest of the festivals is deserved. There’s more of everything: more films, more grandeur, more of a carnival atmosphere. There are jugglers, people dressed up as bears or rabbits for photo ops at a price, luxury cars everywhere.

The French flock to the festival, bringing along their children and every breed of dog imaginable. Hoping to catch glimpses of movie stars, they congregate at 10 a.m. for 6 p.m. premieres; some even set up ladders so they can climb up for a better view. One day we saw a horde of French Boy Scouts with their bright blue uniforms and red scarves padding down the stairs toward the Marché. Maybe there’s a Boy Scout sidebar.

May 14

The students straggle into Kanbar’s talk at the American Pavilion. We’ve got competition, it turns out, from actresses Kirsten Dunst and Julia Ormond, who are holding court elsewhere in the pavilion. Kanbar tells cautionary tales: He distributed Carlos Saura’s Blood Wedding, but admits to missing out on distribution rights to My Life As a Dog (and $2 million in profit) because a friend counseled against buying the film. He also gives some practical advice. Students have as much chance of finding a great film for distribution as any mogul has, maybe even more of a chance because they are the same age as most of the moviegoing public, and he advises them to take any job in the film business—gofer, office boy—and not to wait to be hired as an assistant producer. But, he warns, “If you’re still a gofer after six months, go into your father’s business.”

Several students shrewdly ask to intern with Kanbar’s companies. He’s especially impressed with Michael Billings, an assertive yet charming sophomore whose business card reads, “Bachelor of Science Candidate, Class of 2001, Wharton.”

“I never thought of having business cards when I was an undergraduate,” Kanbar remarks.

Sharon Pinkenson arranges for us to see The Sterling Chase, a film set at Bryn Mawr College, written and directed by Tanya Fenmore. Chase fulfills the students’ assignment to see a film by a woman director. But would they distribute this film? They’re lukewarm.

May 14-15

We don’t get invited to the party of the night, one hosted by MTV, but Penn juniors Barry Schwartz and Julie Neustader do. Barry’s a bright, articulate Bob Dylan fan; petite, likable Julie, who hails from Margate, is following in the footsteps of her brother, who did Penn-in-Cannes last summer. She shows us the invitation, a piece of red carpet, obviously an ironic comment on the carpeted steps of the Lumiere Theater. Barry and Julie stay at the party till 3 a.m.

“Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bon Jovi and Pauly Shore were there,” reports Julie, “and a lot of business types.”

Pauly wins the students’ unofficial prize as Most Ubiquitous “Celebrity.”

They run into him wherever they go, it seems. He’s even started saying hello.

May 15

Our day starts at the American Pavilion. Peter Fonda is cutting the ribbon for the pavilion’s official opening. He says the last time he was in Cannes was 30 years ago with a film called Easy Rider. He is here this year with Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. The paparazzi are there in force, yelling in various European accents, “Peter, Peter, Peter…” Fonda, posing for photos and signing autographs, has just the right take on the paparazzi: “I love all you guys. This is hysterical.”

John Cooper of Sundance is our speaker du jour. He tells the students about everything Sundance, including the new chain of movie theaters—one of which is going up in the students’ backyard, University City. According to Cooper, one of these screens will be used as a cinematheque that will show documentaries and short films. After Cooper’s talk, the students crowd around him to chat and exchange cards. Network, network.

We take advantage of another lead from Sharon Pinkenson. She arranges for us to see a film, Kimberly, directed by Frederic Golchan and set in a gorgeous-looking Philadelphia. Sharon is credited as a producer on the film and has a cameo.

Many of the students go with us to a screening of Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, a bizarre Canadian documentary about a woman who allegedly had sex with hundreds of men in a day to set a world’s record. If nothing else, the film partly satisfies the requirement to see two documentaries. But even with the sensational subject matter, it’s not a student favorite; “boring and cheesy” is the prevailing response.

May 15-16

For some of the students, it’s parties, parties and more parties. The Austin Powers party to hype The Spy Who Shagged Me; Hugh Hefner and 10 of his playmates are there. The QVC party, a benefit for breast cancer research called “Cure by the Sea.” Saryn Chorney, an angelic-looking Penn senior from Connecticut, sees Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek and jury members David Cronenberg, Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum there. She even manages a brief exchange with Goldblum, before being crowded out by reporters and paparazzi:

“I think you’re a great actor.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”

Saryn wasn’t under all that much pressure to network, though. She’s already lined up two job offers (both in place before Cannes), including one with John Leguizamo’s production company.

May 16

The students are really in the swing of the festival now. They are consulting the Cannes dailies to find out what films are screening. When they decide what they want to see, they go to the appropriate place in the Marché to ask for tickets or stand in line at the venues. So far, the students have liked films as diverse as American Pie, a Marché film described by Michael Billings as “Porky’s for the ’90s”; Summertime, one of the classics in the love retrospective; David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy and Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, a film in competition. Has anyone been to the beach yet?

John’s group meetings with the students are held every other day under the palm trees in a garden outside the American Pavilion. As today’s meeting breaks up (Pinkenson was the speaker), Jonathan Hurwitz, a tall, self-assured Wharton senior from New Jersey, talks with Joan about his screenplay, Outside the Box. He hasn’t brought it to Cannes because it is in its fourth draft and he and his co-writer think they need at least another draft before they are ready to search for an agent. Instead, he is using the Cannes experience to see as many films as he can, to learn everything he can about the film business and to make as many contacts as possible.

Jon wrote the screenplay at night last summer while working in asset management at PNC Bank by day. The film has an autobiographical slant—it’s a comedy about a college student who’s focused on becoming an investment banker but over the course of a summer realizes there are other options. (Michael Ovitz, if you are reading this, have your people call Jon’s people.)

Jon was intrigued by Kanbar’s talk about film distribution.

“I’m a good stock picker,” he says. “And I think I could be a good movie picker, too.”


The “producer” invites the two students to his hotel to swim. He says they can also shower and nap there and that he’ll buy them drinks. Uh-oh.


Dina Said also takes a moment to chat in the garden. She is the only one of our students who is working during the festival. A diminutive, elegant Penn senior from Egypt, Geneva and Cannes whose father is a former movie producer, she’s fluent in French, English, Arabic and Italian. She is acting as an assistant to a woman who buys the rights to French and American films and then sells those rights to distributors in Thailand and Taiwan. Dina didn’t realize such a business even existed before she arrived at the festival; following the festival, she’ll be offered a permanent job with the person she’s assisting, but she’s not sure she’ll take it.

Dina is thinking of working in the marketing and distribution of French films in the United States. “I have often wondered why wonderful French films I have seen have never made it to the United States, and I’d like to do something about that,” she says.

The students clearly have the advantage over us in partygoing. They hear the buzz, they talk their way in, they have friends in the industry. Just when we are despairing of ever seeing a Cannes party for ourselves, Maurice Kanbar invites us to the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival’s bash on the beach. Kanbar sponsors it, so Skyy Vodka is flowing. Lina Wertmuller, the famous German director, is there—short, very animated, her trademark eyeglasses as big as her face. We watch the sun go down and see the pink-streaked sky over the Mediterranean. A wonderful party.

We head home by way of the Croisette. It’s the first time we try to maneuver our way through the throngs of people on the broad boulevard at night. After dark, the Croisette has a fairytale-like quality, the huge palm trees and giant film posters all tastefully illuminated. The carousel is spinning to the unlikely strains of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Bands play everywhere. Here a Dixieland band, there a Cajun group. Vendors sell their wares, everything from jewelry to temporary tattoos. The mood is festive. Dogs and children are out in force. The real world never intrudes.

A black tie screening lets out. The posh crowd pours out of the Palais, down the red carpet stairs and onto the faux red carpet painted on the blacktop of the Croisette. We float home.

May 16-17

Just when we finally get to a Cannes beach party, we find out where the action really is. Twelve students (“dressed up like we would for a premiere,” according to senior Ashley Curran-Morris) hire a caravan of cabs to hang out in the even more rarefied air of the Hotel du Cap in the resort paradise of Cap d’Antibes, about half an hour away. It’s where the most successful of the actors and moguls stay. The stars are ferried by Rolls and Mercedes regularly from the hotel to the Palais.

According to student Whitney Miller, the hotel looks like the most elegant of villas. The swimming pool is perched on rocks suspended over the ocean. Amy Gordon, a sophomore, tells us that the stargazing experience is particularly fruitful at the Hotel du Cap. The students see Val Kilmer, Robert Duvall, Ron Howard, George Clooney, Mike Myers and Kate Moss. The ever-unflappable Michael Billings even meets Harvey Weinstein. We’re not surprised.

(No one seems to have seen any evidence of Moss’ alleged relapse into wild behavior, as was reported in the gossip columns.)

May 17

The Harvey Weinstein-Roger Ebert conversation at the American Pavilion. We are all there early. Weinstein describes his first experience at Cannes. The year is 1979. He and his brother Bob stayed in a small hotel and had no tickets for any of the major screenings. One night they sneaked in through the Palais’ back entrance, Weinstein says, because they were from Brooklyn. They were safe for a few minutes until the gendarmes tried to eject them because they weren’t wearing tuxedos. Then they heard a booming voice saying, “Leave them alone.” It was Sean Connery. They were allowed to stay. The rest is independent film history.

Jon Hurwitz and Audrey Reichman, another Penn student, join us for a screening of My Enemy My Friend, German director Werner Herzog’s disturbing documentary about his tumultuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, the actor he used in many of his films. The students are fascinated by the film; they discuss the final image, in which a butterfly hovers about Kinski, evoking both his gentleness and his craziness. They ask us about Herzog’s earlier work, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo: Is it available at TLA? Later we run into several Penn students at the late-night screening of No Mail for the Colonel, the newest film from veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. They excitedly critique the films they have seen.

At the meeting the next day, they share their finds with each other in true film festival tradition. Some movies they rave about include Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock and a small independent film, Oxygen. The Five Senses, by Jeremy Podeswa, also has made a great impression on everyone who has seen it.

We hear that there is a new prime minister in Israel. There’s a primary election in Philadelphia today. All of the information we get about what is going on the world seems to fade away quickly. The unreal Cannes experience has grabbed us and taken us away from all of that, just as a great movie can.

We are delighted to hear from many of the students that fast friendships across disparate Penn communities have formed in the last week.

“I like the way there weren’t cliques,” says senior Ashley Curran-Morris. “We went with people who wanted to do what we wanted to do, and not just because they were in a certain group.”

All will culminate on Saturday night with the jury’s award of the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ award for best feature film. We don’t have a prediction yet.

May 19

The Canadian party at Grey D’Albion Beach. John finally catches up with David Cronenberg—in the men’s room. Unfortunately, he can’t talk to the students—too busy—and he’s not talking to the press.

The students hear the last of the directors’ lectures at the American Pavilion. Spike Lee announces he no longer likes She’s Gotta Have It. And Atom Egoyan, they report, comes off as “very slick.”

May 23

Things are winding down. In the last few days many of us have seen films in the official competition directed by Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), David Lynch (The Straight Story), Peter Greenaway (8 1/2 Women), John Sayles (Limbo). But now the Marché is closed. Few screenings are left. The crowds are thinning out, except for the glut of people with their ladders, jockeying for the best position to watch the stars ascend the stairs for the last time this millennium.

We pass a disheveled Francis Ford Coppola walking alone on the Croisette. We wonder what it’s like for him, who hasn’t had a commercially successful movie since Godfather II, to be here with his director daughter Sofia, here with her well-reviewed first feature, The Virgin Suicides.

As the Cannes jury deliberates, we run into two of our students, Alexis Martin, a senior studying film at Boston University, and Ashley. We trade our Palme d’Or predictions. Alexis, like many of the students, John and most of the French pundits, favor the Pedro Almodovar film. Ashley says, for her, “It’s between All About My Mother and Ghost Dog.” Joan’s choice is Ghost Dog, too, but she thinks it’s a long shot.

Many of the students have already left to continue their overseas adventures in Nice, Florence, London or Paris. Others are heading home to Philadelphia or New York.

All that remains are the Palme d’Or announcement and the closing film, An Ideal Husband. We cross our fingers and wait.

Along with a crowd of amiable French journalists, we watch the awards (and the last march up the Lumiere stairs) on closed-circuit TV in the Palais. Our hallway compatriots cheer and boo not only the jury’s selections but the presenters as well.

“And the winner is… Rosetta.” It’s a film by Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, whose La Promesse was a festival hit a few years ago. Nobody, but nobody, predicted it would win. And by the sound of the reactions in the Palais hall, our fellow journalists are none too happy with the choice.

The entire awards ceremony is over in 30 minutes.

So our predictions failed. And Harvey Weinstein didn’t option our screenplay (though we did get it into the hands of three very interested parties).

But no matter. Our experience here was a resounding success.

Au revoir, Cannes.