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Two More Weeks in the Midday Sun

I was fortunate enough to meet Roger and Chaz Ebert in 2010 as they interviewed directors to pilot their upcoming public television review program. But as I mentioned to Roger, even though we were meeting for the first time, I felt like he had already been a mentor of mine for many years. I had read his writing in the Chicago Sun-Times and watched his reviews on television all the way back to the Sneak Previews days. His perspective was invaluable. At some point after film school, I picked up a copy of his book Two Weeks in the Midday Sun. I can’t quite recall, but I probably bought it in the early days of eBay. It still has a sticker with the Dewey Decimal number 791.43 and the pocket where a checkout card would go for the San Diego Public Library. 

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If anyone reading this has not read Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, I strongly encourage you to do so immediately. It’s a fascinating look at the world’s most prestigious film festival, the wide variety of characters that inhabit it each year, and Roger’s unique first-person relationship to all of the above. And unlike my old library copy, the latest version features a wonderful prologue from Martin Scorsese.

In 2011, while the new TV show was in production and May of that year approached, Roger was unfortunately not feeling up to making the journey and fighting the crowds in Cannes. Knowing how much the festival meant to him, I’m sure this was a tough decision but an understandable one. He asked Chaz to represent him at the festival, and Chaz tapped me to travel to Cannes with her to produce some segments for the television show and the Chicago Sun-Times. I was absolutely thrilled.

The show has been off the air for years now, but Chaz and I have continued to cover the festival along with my right-hand cameraman, Bob Long, ever since. And each year before we head to the South of France, I read Roger’s book to remind me of his perspective on the festival and the spirit in which we cover it. In reading the book this year, it struck me that Roger mentions he’s writing it during his 12th visit to Cannes. In counting up the years I’ve attended and a couple that I missed, I realized that this will be my 12th visit to Cannes. Of course, my experiences in Cannes are much different than Roger’s experiences. But by now, I do know my way around the festival well enough. So I thought it would be fun to take a look at what’s different and what’s remained the same at the Cannes Film Festival since Roger wrote his book in 1987.


One of the first things Roger describes is the great difficulty he has with sending dispatches of his writing back to the United States for publication. How quaint! But nearly 40 years later, this is still a problem! Well, perhaps not for the writers in Cannes. Modern-day internet in hotels, cafes, and festival locations is generally stable and speedy enough to send off written reports easily. But for those of us working with video and specifically much larger video files, our hotel internet continues to be a problem even in 2024. Sometimes, just trying to log on to reserve tickets for a film screening is impossible because the internet is overloaded or just plain down for the count. “Does the WiFi work for you?” is a frequent question overheard in the hotel breakfast room each year. I’ve even found myself standing on the street in front of a closed festival building at 3 am holding a laptop over my head in the hope it connects with the WiFi in the press lounge a floor above in order to get our latest report uploaded. In recent years, I’ve abandoned the attempt to upload large video files from our hotel altogether and now only do it in festival buildings during normal operating hours.


The aforementioned Palais is the central hub of the Cannes Film Festival. It was fairly new when Roger wrote about it, just three years old at the time. Its imposing structure was described as the Death Star back then due to its imposing size and design. Certainly, you’ve seen pictures of its red carpet and multiple terraces. Perhaps you’ll recall it in the opening of Brian De Palma’s movie “Femme Fatale (2002), although I can confidently tell you that the bathrooms of the Palais are not nearly as large as they are depicted in that film. Today, the Palais remains the center of everything. It holds giant market and convention spaces, multiple theaters, lounges, offices, and, of course, the main press conference room where Chaz can be found front and center with a thoughtful question at the ready. 

The Palais’ main theater, The Grand Lumiére, remains one of, if not the absolute best, places in the world to watch a film. The French take all aspects of the theatrical experience very seriously. And seeing a world premiere in that room, with 2300 other film lovers, is a magical experience. Perhaps a little less magical if you’re up in the corner of the very last row, but still memorable.

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Perhaps more famous than the Palais itself are the famous red-carpeted stairs that lead to the Grand Lumiere Theater. But the steps were not always red. In the first few years of the festival, the carpet was blue. And it wasn’t until the new Palais opened in 1984 that the red carpet welcomed guests every day and evening to the next prestigious screening. Roger mentions that a number of French celebrities would make appearances on the carpet every year without fail whether they had a film to support or not. That remains the case today, but it isn’t limited to just French stars. In fact, a number of international models attend annually and walk the red carpet just for the photo op, without even bothering to climb the steps or attend the film. And I can’t remember the last year when American actress Eva Longoria didn’t appear on the famous red carpet. 


Roger also mentions taking in the view of the Palais, the harbor, and the old fort at the top of the hill from his balcony at the Hotel Splendid. This hotel was his home during the festival for years, and it’s still our home for the two weeks we spend in Cannes. It’s a small boutique hotel that just recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. In many ways, it feels the same year after year, maintaining its old-world charm. We treasure the wonderful morning breakfasts, unbeatable location, and, above all, the warm staff who greet us as returning friends each year.

Until recently, the Hotel Splendid was owned by a singular entrepreneur, the late Madame Cagnat, who had a long, friendly relationship with Roger and Chaz. Although the hotel strives to make small changes and improvements each and every year, I have a feeling Roger would still feel very much at home there today. In fact, there is a suite that bears his name. Alas, rumor has it that the new hotel owners are planning some major changes after this year’s festival, so this may be our last time in The Splendid as we know it.

On the same page of his book, Roger mentions another venerable establishment in Cannes: La Pizza. And the La Pizza restaurant is, stop me if you’ve heard this before, very much the same today as it was in Roger’s day. The pies are made in the traditional Italian style, alongside excellent salads and lasagna. The clientele is varied from tourist to celebrity. And the waiters charmingly write your order in pencil on your paper tablecloth before, rippppp, tearing it off the table to add up your bill. It’s still our go-to spot for some comfort food or a snack after a late-night screening.

One restaurant in town that Roger did not get to experience still amazes me to this day. Roger passed away in April of 2013, and as a result, we did not attend the 2013 festival. But we did return in 2014, and I will never forget driving up to the entrance of Hotel Splendid, Roger’s home away from home in Cannes for decades, and seeing that a Steak ’n Shake had been built just across the street, a location that we walk past multiple times a day. 

Anyone who followed Roger or attended EbertFest knows that Steak ’n Shake was Roger’s favorite restaurant. He wrote about it as early as 1977. And it seemingly has absolutely no business being in France. It seemed almost magical that it appeared at this location and at this time: the year that Life Itself, Steve James’ exquisite documentary depicting Roger’s legacy, played in Cannes. Steak ’n Shake remains in the same spot today and now feels like an old standby for a quick bite between films.

Throughout the book, Roger describes another hotel in town, The Majestic. Along with The Carlton, The Majestic is one of the more upscale hotels in Cannes, within a short walk of the Palais, popular with film stars and filmmakers and generally too expensive for journalists. In the book, Rex Reed laments the cost of a Club Sandwich in 1987: $35. I learned this myself in the first year I attended the festival when my cheeseburger and Coke cost nearly $50. I’ve since found other places to eat. But the bar at The Majestic, which Roger describes with legendary detail, is definitely worth the price of a drink. The intimate room remains a great place to people-watch famous film stars and filmmakers alike.


Roger laments in the book that the lines to get into films in Cannes are only sporadically honored, especially by the French. My favorite observation of his in this section is, “They seem to think anyone stupid enough to stand in line deserves to be made to wait.” One of my own traveling companions has a similar ethos. In the early days of my festival attendance, the press were granted access to screenings based only on the priority color of their badges, which were based on seniority and theoretical importance. So, unless you had the top color “white” badge, you could never be guaranteed a seat at an important screening. This led to quite a bit of stress and maneuvering in line, especially as the last precious seats were filling up and the fear of being shut out intensified.

My worst experience with this was a press screening for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood...” The screening was to take place inside the Palais at the Bazin theater: a spacious theater but one with only a fraction of the seating of the Lumiére or Debussy. I queued up two hours early, and things started out quite orderly. But as the line grew longer and began to clog up the public areas of the Palais, the festival panicked and tried to move the front of the queue to a more spacious area. This led to a mass of humanity rushing chaotically to fill the void. With the previous line having been obliterated, people were shoving and pushing their way to the front. I felt the pressure from all sides and kept my arms up to my chest to keep from feeling crushed. Roger describes a similar scene when a journalist waiting for the doors to open, was pushed straight through a pane of glass by the crowd behind him.

Thankfully, nothing like that has happened for a while. Waiting in line is still a part of the Cannes experience today, but a bit less so. In recent years, the festival has implemented advance electronic reservations and ticketing for most screenings. With ticket holders knowing they’ll have a seat waiting for them, it’s greatly reduced the length and tension level in today’s queues.

One area where the queue maintains its importance is the lines for the official press conferences. No advance tickets are distributed for journalists other than for the camera technicians at extremely popular conferences. Seats at the press conferences are first-come first-served based on your badge color. Truthfully, only a small percentage of journalists attend the press conferences themselves. An even smaller percentage actually ask questions of the filmmakers during the conferences. But Roger was a fixture at these events, even if he was sometimes embarrassed by the silly questions posed by his colleagues. Today, the occasional silly questions remain, but although Roger is no longer in attendance, Chaz has become a central figure. Although she often conducts one-on-one interviews with many notable figures in Cannes, she maintains a regular presence at press conferences as well, generally sitting front and center. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese insist to the moderators that she’s chosen to ask a question. And she even makes national news on occasion as she did in 2016 with George Clooney when she asked him about the upcoming presidential election. I think Roger would be very happy to see Chaz hold court each year at the press conferences in Cannes.


One film in the 1987 competition that the book covers extensively is Barbet Schroeder’s “Barfly,” starring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke. Roger had some unique access to the making of that film, and so he had a lot to write about the subsequent premiere in Cannes. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to hear the discussion between Roger and Charles Bukowski, who wrote the script for the film.

Although it occurred in 1979 rather than 1987, Roger recalls the invitation and subsequent events around one of the most famous press conferences and Cannes screenings ever for “Apocalypse Now.” Coppola arrived with an unfinished film, wasn’t sure which ending to show, and flanked himself with his children, seemingly for protection from the press. This year, Coppola returns to the competition in Cannes for the first time since 1979 with his passion project, “Megalopolis.” Will Roman and Sofia be at his side again this year? We’ll have to wait and see.

Just as Coppola returns to Cannes this year, so will Faye Dunaway. A documentary about her life and career by director Laurent Bouzereau will play in the Cannes Classics section in 2024.

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Barfly was produced by Menahem Golan’s Cannon Films, and if there is a central character of Two Weeks in the Midday Sun outside of Roger himself, it’s Golan. He’s a larger-than-life figure who parlayed the financial success of his B-movies into A-list projects that competed for the Palme d’Or. And compete he did, throwing more advertising and promotion money into his films at Cannes than probably every other studio combined.

Cannon Films eventually flamed out, and it was Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein who picked up the baton and became the most talked about studio head in Cannes for the next 20+ years. Of course, Harvey can no longer be seen walking along the Croisette for every good reason. And today, I don’t think there is a studio head that matches Golan or Weinstein for being the center of attention in the marketplace that is Cannes. Certainly, A24, NEON, or even Michael Barker and Tom Bernard from Sony Pictures Classics are routinely making high-profile acquisitions during the festival. But they let their films do the talking rather than making the story about themselves. And perhaps that’s one of the bigger changes since Roger’s day. Creative stunts and splashy ads in the trades still exist, but their rate of return has diminished. The films speak for themselves regardless of who releases them.


At the end of the book, after the festival is over, Roger bumps into Peter Noble of Screen International at the airport and asks him, “Enjoy yourself?” Noble responds, “Dear boy, it’s always the same. One is happy to go and happy to leave.” This, I can attest, is accurate. Two weeks is a long time to spend anywhere, even in the luxurious South of France. Add to that 4 or 5 screenings a day, persistent jet lag, and the general pressure cooker environment of the festival, and it can become a grind. Having said that, I’m extremely pleased to have just arrived in Cannes. In just about two weeks, I’ll be very happy to be flying home. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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