WITH the opening this week of the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera, a film-industry ritual goes into full swing.
For the last 45 years, the Cannes Festival has brought together an odd but impressive combination of events: movie competition, international film and video market, social occasion, and promotional orgy. In recent decades, some critics would argue, the promotional aspect has altered the focus to a degree that obscures the festival's purpose.
In the beginning, the Cannes Festival concentrated purely on quality. It was the major international movie event, and the distinguished jury was charged with picking the best on the world's screens.
In the 1970s, critics say the business side began to intrude, gradually taking over and turning Cannes into a giant, buzzing movie bazaar, with television and video sales thrown in for good measure. A recently published book, "Hollywood on the Riviera" (William Morrow & Co.), by Cari Beauchamp and Henri Behar, offers a colorful and historic look at the festival and its participants.
The authors write: "There is no question that if artistic concerns were ever primary, they are no longer. The official creation of the film market in the early '60s has grown to the point where at times it overwhelms the Official Selection, but it is still the films in competition that command the media attention that defines Cannes."
The media attention (about 3,000 journalists attend Cannes), however, does not always insure that winning films will go on to commercial success.
Ralph Donnelly, the executive vice president of City Cinemas, New York's main art-house circuit, says that the Cannes "label" appears to be of little box-office value in New York. This contrasts with the boost received by movies that earn Academy Awards.
"Hollywood on the Riviera" is crammed with stories and anecdotes that chronicle the erratic behavior of stars, directors, agents, and even publicists, whom the authors blame for derailing the artistic purposes of the festival.
For someone who has been to Cannes, the book reminds that the festival had more life in the early days when the big American studios called the shots. Cannes was also an important element to stardom for movie actors.
Amid the hype, business transactions are pursued. Of note is the rise of independent producers and the trend toward international co-production of films.
"It used to be that everyone congregated on that huge terrace of the Carlton Hotel, or on the beach, and business was conducted there," reminisced Walter Manley, a veteran movie-sales agent. "Now, everybody just uses their hotel room as offices. The fun is largely gone. Business has taken over, and on top of that Cannes is more expensive."
Yet, some of the glamour and the creative fervor is still there. New talent is often discovered, both in the competition and in the Directors' Fortnight, an event devoted to directors' first films.