OMNIA: Summer on the Circuit

December 1, 2015

Penn-in-Cannes Program Inspires Adventurous Scholarship

by Blake Cole
Photos courtesy of Peter Decherney

It’s not every college class where you get credit for sneaking into movies, with the chance of scoring a seat next to one of the world’s biggest film celebrities. This is Penn-in-Cannes, a cinema studies course created over a decade ago that whisks students away to a relatively small city on the French Riviera that once a year becomes the premier place on Earth to be if you’re a film enthusiast.

Each year the program accepts 30 students, the maximum number the festival allows from one university. Students attend two mandatory pre-departure lectures on the state of global cinema and the festival itself to get a sense of how they’re changing.

“Some students are more interested in aesthetics, while others pick up on the business side of film, which is a big piece of the festival,” says Peter Decherney, a professor of English and cinema studies and author of Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet and the forthcoming Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction. “The festival experience is a great complement to their coursework in Cinema Studies.”

Before departing, students write a paper on a recent festival film. One of the most popular paper subjects this past year was Biutiful, a 2010 Mexican-Spanish drama film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won three Academy Awards for his film Birdman.

While in Cannes, students stay at the Collège International, a French foreign language school. That’s when the race to see as many films as possible begins, with students waking up at dawn with the goal of seeing 25 movies in two weeks. Some students attend more that 40 screenings.

Attendees are given badges which control their film access. Students need to be creative if they want to sit in on some of the biggest features. “What the students tend to do, which I unfortunately can no longer do because I’m too embarrassed [laughs], is to beg for invitations,” says Decherney. “They stand in front of the venues and wait for someone to give them an invitation. So depending on your luck you might end up sitting next to Cate Blanchett.”

And while the films are front and center, they are only a small part of what’s happening at the festival. “A lot of people are there to host industry meetings, to pitch a new project, or speak with a distributor,” says Decherney. “It could be a company that is trying to sell Asian horror films. It could be the country of Norway, trying to entice filmmakers with tax credits.”

The festival is unpredictable and there are surprises each year. “We were at a very luxurious hotel one year and one of our students saw Quentin Tarantino,” says Nicola Gentili, associate director of the cinema studies program and the director of the Cannes program, who has posters from each year’s festival hanging in his office. “They asked if they could get a part in one of his movies and he replied, ‘Well, you would probably be killed quickly. Do you really want to?’ It was a laugh for everyone.”

Students also keep journals, describing their experiences at screenings, meeting festival goers and industry insiders, and special anecdotes. “They’re always fascinating to read,” says Decherney. “It’s a very friendly atmosphere at the festival, and students often have the chance to speak with industry leaders from many different countries.”

Another crucial aspect of the trip is Penn’s network of alumni on the ground, who meet with the students to impart their industry wisdom. In the past this has included Jeffrey Berg, PAR’06, PAR’10, former CEO of International Creative Management, Inc.; Geoffrey Gilmore, C’74, past director of the Sundance Film Festival and current creative director of the Tribeca Film Festival; Richard Hess, C’84, PAR’18, founder and co-managing partner of Evolution Media Capital; and Lorraine Carrady Quinn, CW’73, PAR’07, PAR’13, president of Caribbean Cinemas.

And though the festival is full of stars, Priyamvada Dalmia, C’16, a psychology and history of art major, says, “Cannes is not just about living at the heart of cinematic glamour. It is about being alive to the experience of a global arena of the film industry and soaking in the culture of the festival.” Cinema studies and English major Gabe Morales, C’16, adds, “Cannes had always seemed like a pipe dream, but being there amongst all of these people that loved film and had some part in the film world made it all very real and instilled in me a burning desire to return one day on the other side of things.”

When students return they are tasked with writing a final paper about the festival. “Many students this year wrote about the official theme of the festival, which was ‘year de la femmes,’” says Decherney. “Historically one of the biggest criticisms has been that Cannes is an all-boys club.”

Jennifer Schofield, C’17, a communications and cinema studies major, says the program helped influence her eventual line of study. “If someone would have told me a few years ago that I would get the opportunity not only to go to France, but also to attend the screenings and the ceremony of the awarding of the Palme d’Or, I never would have thought it to be true. It is what ultimately led me to decide to become a French language minor.”

Penn-in-Cannes is part of the Penn Summer Abroad program offered through the School’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies—a program that also includes Penn-in-Havana, a course on sustainability and climate change in Berlin and Rotterdam, and a class on Greek religion and ancient architecture in Athens.

“The program is a good example of a creative combination of in-class learning in West Philly with an intense experience abroad,” says Dennis DeTurck, Stephen A. Levin Dean of the College, Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor, and Professor of Mathematics. “This combination of meaningful abroad experiences that illustrate, amplify, and inspire classroom study exemplifies the new global educational initiatives Penn is pursuing in many disciplines.”