The truth about boos and standing ovations at Cannes

The truth about boos and standing ovations at Cannes

If you follow news coming out of the Cannes Film Festival you will have no doubt encountered many reports of booing or standing ovations. Some websites will publish several posts throughout the span of the festival that report on which screenings were booed and which were applauded and cheered.

I even saw, one night in a hotel in Cannes, a television programme that was screening the standing ovations for each film in competition, using an on-screen counter to show which got the longest applause.

There are many reasons to distrust these reports. For one thing, the mixture of boos and applause you’ll encounter can be entirely different from one screening of a film to the next. I’ll take for example Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, which had its premiere this week as part of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s story on the first screening of Lost River opened like this.

Hearty boos as well as a short burst of applause greeted Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, which was unveiled today at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

That doesn’t sound good, does it? This was published after a press screening, prior to the official premiere. I can tell you first hand, however, that the premiere was greeted by a standing ovation that lasted for at least five minutes and maybe much more, I just didn’t stick around to count.

The cast and crew were in attendance at the premiere and perhaps their presence led to the crowd being more charitable, or easy to convince. Or maybe it was just a different crowd.

A very similar thing happened with Only God Forgives last year. Here’s an excerpt from Justin Chang’s Variety report.

…the film was booed at its press screening earlier this morning, countered (as boos often are) by defiant shouts of “Bravo!” and scattered applause, indicating pockets of support.

Kyle Buchanan at Vulture also ran a piece called ‘Cannes: Ryan Gosling in the Bloody, Booed Only God Forgives’. There are dozens of other posts about the booing, but those were perhaps the highest profile.

The Grand Theatre Lumiere, where a lot of premieres and press screenings take place, seats over two thousand people and it’s normally pretty full. I was there for the very same screening of Only God Forgives but as seating is based on perceived level of importance, I was positioned very, very far from Mr. Chang and Mr. Buchanan.

Did I hear boos during the screening? Maybe a few, but the response I could hear was comprised mainly of applause and cheers. I have no doubt that Mr. Chang and Mr. Buchanan reported what they heard, but there’s no way they could take an accurate, objective measure of the whole room’s response. The Lumiere is just too darn big.

I could have very easily written a piece with the headline, ‘Cannes: Ryan Gosling in the Bloody, Applauded Only God Forgives’ and been reflecting reality just as honestly.

Like Lost River, Only God Forgives also did pretty well with the crowds at its evening premiere. Here’s a short video of their response.

That’s how it looked and sounded from one seat, anyway.

You might assume that the morning crowd is made up only of critics and that the evening premieres are filled only with invited guests, thereby explaining away the differences in reaction. It’s not only a fallacy to consider critics as a distinct species, it’s also the case that Cannes screenings don’t actually work like this.

Morning screenings are intended for press but also open to those with a market badge, which includes buyers, film festival programmers, distributors and all sorts of other industry types, or those with a Cannes Cinephile pass, which can be all kinds of people with an interest in cinema.

Press have priority access, in theory, but in practice, the audience is mixed. And it’s also worth remembering that not everybody with a press pass is a critic, and there’s a large number of photojournalists and entertainment journalists who are also entitled to attend.

The premiere crowds are similarly mixed, though there’s admittedly going to be a lot less press in the room. There will be some, though, and while I’ve only attended four premiers myself, I know a number of press who go to many.

What’s more, films can have multiple press screenings, and this only leads to an even greater disparity of experiences. I attended a morning press screening of The Paperboy that started thirty minutes after the first. Later on, I read a number of articles about boos at the press screening.

But during my screening, distinguished from the first in only its schedule and location, there were no boos to be heard from anywhere. I had attended with two other members of the press and they both professed that they loved the film. I assumed my own, very negative response was going to be an outlier. It was only after I filed my own review that I saw how widely the film was being panned, and saw its Cannes response being characterised through a string of headlines about booing.

And so it’s obvious that reports of booing, applauding and standing ovations are to be taken with a grain salt, but why should we care about these eruptions in the first place? Without an indication as to who booed or cheered, and some explanation of why, what does it really mean?

If I say that I overheard a man on the bus saying that Taxi Driver, Inglorious Basterds, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Tree of Life are all rubbish, would you consider it important? Would publications devote one thousand words to writing about this man’s judgments?

All of these films were booed at Cannes, and we know just as much about who was voicing the dissent or where it comes from in either scenario, the bus or the film festival.

If we stop reading the stories about booing and ovations, perhaps those writing them will give up. And when they learn that nobody is paying any attention, maybe the obnoxious bores who boo loudly might put a sock in it too.

[Header image via Bienvu]