Cannes: Why Martin Scorsese and Backers Declined a Spot in Competition for ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
At the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off Tuesday, six titles — not counting midnight screenings or the TV series The Idol — will screen “out of competition,” meaning with a big red carpet premiere and the heavy media coverage that accompanies one, but without eligibility for festival prizes.
They include fest opener Jeanne du Barry, starring Johnny Depp (following in the footsteps of star vehicles ranging from 2011’s The Beaver to 2018’s Gotti); fest closer Elemental, from Pixar (animated pics are almost never invited into competition); franchise flick Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (a 2008 Indiana Jones pic also screened out of competition, as have installments of Kill Bill, Matrix, Oceans, Star Wars and X-Men); and cineastes’ most highly anticipated title, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.
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Among those, Killers is a unique case, in that fest director Thierry Fremaux revealed in April that it was — and remains — invited to screen in competition. He said that he initially offered the film only of an out of competition slot, since its worldwide digital distributor Apple, like most other streamers, won’t usually wait for a lengthy theatrical window prior to streaming them, as required by the fest for a competition slot. But then Apple indicated that it would do so with Killers (which Paramount will distribute theatrically in France and the U.S.). “So,” Fremaux explained, “I said, ‘Well, in that case, you are welcome in competition.’ And now we’ll see what their response is.”
Scorsese — who has previously had numerous films play at Cannes both in competition (including Taxi Driver, which won the Palme d’Or in 1976, and After Hours, for which he was awarded 1985’s best director prize) and out of it (numerous documentaries) — and Apple have opted not to take up Fremaux on his offer. That begs the question: why would a legendary filmmaker and a flush distributor, armed with what Fremaux describes as “an extremely strong film” that drove him to tears, not want to screen a film in competition at the world’s most prestigious film fest?
Some filmmakers are averse to the idea of competition. Woody Allen, for instance, has brought more than a dozen films to Cannes dating back to 1979’s Manhattan. Three opened the fest, but none have played in competition. Allen explained in 2016, “For any group to judge other people is something one should never do… I don’t believe in it, and I don’t want to participate.” Others have followed suit. Jacques Audiard, whose Dheepan won the Palme in 2015, said in 2018 that he will henceforth refuse competition spots, stating, “I don’t want to be in competition anywhere.” And that was also the takeaway of Stephen Frears after he presided over the competition jury in 2007; despite having previously screened multiple films in competition, he kept his next, 2010’s Tamara Drewe, out of it.
Other times, a filmmaker and/or distributor is concerned about managing expectations for a film. The New York Times noted way back in 1974, “An increasing number of established filmmakers… decline to compete at Cannes, reasoning that the loss of the grand prize to some upstart newcomer can be more damaging than winning can be prestigious.” Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, a veteran of many Cannes fests, tells THR, “I don’t recall that it ever helps the ‘masters’ who have films in competition. There is less pressure for filmmakers when their work is reviewed on its own terms.” That factored into the calculation to keep Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon out of competition at the fest in 1999, according to Sony Classics co-chief Tom Bernard: “The movie just gets written about differently if it’s in competition. We wanted people to discover it without the context of competition.”
On rare occasions, a veteran filmmaker simply feels magnanimous and wants to give lesser-known filmmakers a chance to compete. That was the explanation of Steven Soderbergh, whose sex, lies and videotape won the Palme in 1989, for why he initially declined a competition slot for 2013’s Behind the Candelabra (before Fremaux talked him into reconsidering).
Robert Altman, who won the Palme in 1970 for M*A*S*H, found all of these sorts of explanations to be lacking, telling Roger Ebert in 1977, “If you don’t want to be in competition, that means you’re either too arrogant or too scared. So you might lose? I’ve lost before; there’s nothing wrong with losing.”
That said, nobody in the know regards Scorsese as arrogant or scared — quite the opposite. Instead, THR hears that he and his backers have based their position regarding Killers on the fact that two American films that premiered out of competition last year, Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis, generated tremendous buzz at the fest, made a fortune at the box office and ended up going just as far in the awards season as the film won the Palme, Triangle of Sadness (all three received best picture Oscar nominations), so there is no reason to try to fix what isn’t broken.
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