The experiences of American Pavilion interns at the Cannes Film Festival

I have just returned from a trip to the Cannes Film Festival and market. While I was there I learned about what it is like for the 200+ interns attending Cannes via the student programs run by the American Pavilion (“AmPav”).

I have subsequently spoken with over 30 interns about their experiences and will share below what I’ve found.

This is likely to be an evolving story. As I learn more I will update, correct and expand this article in response to the feedback and responses I receive. I have added a Change Log at the end to make it easy for you to see what’s been updated.

The American Pavilion 101

The annual Cannes Film Festival and Marche du Film are the most famous gatherings in the film calendar. Among the venues open to attendees are a number of “pavilions” along the beach, each from a different country. They act as a ‘home from home’ for film professionals, and as a way to promote each country’s offerings to the film community.

The American Pavilion (“AmPav”) is unusual as it is the only pavilion in Cannes to charge an entry fee. Festival attendees pay between $100 (the basic package bought in advance) and $1,100 (VIP access bought on-site) for access. For that, they get seats, wi-fi, free coffee, industry events and the chance to purchase drinks and food from the restaurant.

A major part of AmPav’s activity is its student program, which recruits over 200 US college students (aged between 17 and late 20s) and places them in a variety of internship positions.

AmPav’s program is the only student program officially recognised by the Cannes Festival. In 2007, Executive Director of the Marche du Film Jérôme Paillard said: “Although there are other student programs in existence at Cannes, they have no affiliation with the Festival or Marche. As we know that in the past some organisations have offered very low-quality programs to students mostly from the USA, we have decided to endorse only those few whose seriousness and quality we can vouch for“.

AmPav is owned by Penske Media, which also owns pretty much all the major film trade publications, namely The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, Variety and IndieWire.

What the interns said they experienced

While in Cannes I heard about a few aspects of the AmPav internship program which concerned me. So I tweeted about it and invited students to reach out and share their experiences.

Five main themes emerged:

  1. Pay to participate
  2. Unpaid service jobs
  3. Accommodation
  4. Covid response
  5. Inappropriate behaviour

There were a few other minor concerns raised but I am focusing on the stories I heard over and over. Plus, interning is not fun at the best of times so I have filled a number of the other complaints under “Yes, interning is horrible”. That’s not to dismiss them but just to say that I want my focus to be on the aspects which I feel are beyond what a normal intern should expect to endure.

1. Pay to Participate

Each student is paying around $4,000 to intern at Cannes.

Among the things the students receive are an internship position, accommodation, airport pickup/dropoff, breakfast, AmPav events, accreditation and access to the pavilion. The fee does not include flights, most of their food and other travel/living costs.

I’m told that there are 223 students, 8 culinary students and 50 staff/volunteers. If this is correct, then we can calculate that the gross income paid by these interns is likely to be in the range of $900,000 to $960,000.

Most students said they spent upwards of $6,000 to be working in Cannes. This quote was representative of the experiences I heard about:

  • “The cost of the program for early decision was $3,950. My flight was roughly $1,200… AmPav recommended to us to bring $1,500 for spending money. I spent nearly $400 on professional clothing that would be appropriate in the heat of the summer. I spent $600 on a tux and alterations. Writing all those numbers out makes me sick for what this program actually is. And the worst part is many of us, including myself, don’t have this money on hand, so we had to put most-to-all of it on credit cards!”

When I reached out, many of the companies where interns were placed were shocked to hear that their interns had paid to be working there.

2. Unpaid Service Jobs

The AmPav say: “Partner companies include talent agencies, production/distribution companies (both domestic and international), trade publications, and PR firms“. This is true, and a number of students said they had learned a lot from their positions.

However, one aspect left off that list is working in the actual pavilion. The pavilion hosts a number of events, private parties and is open to members during the day. They sell and serve a selection of food and drinks. Much of this work is carried out by interns in the program.

Here’s what the students had to say on the matter:

  • “Working inside the pavilion consists of waiting tables, bartending, selling memberships, some scheduling of panels and round tables, and the relatively “lucky” few who are recording some events or panels. They’re jobs of necessity and we got shoved into them, mislead to think they would give us time to network”
  • “They promise that the pavilion workers get to meet and interact with the celebrities brought in, but of course they don’t it’s just manual labor and they get in trouble for interacting with people”

The AmPav website explicitly tells students: “Please be sure to apply for a tourist visa.” (bold emphasis is theirs) and one student I spoke with said:

  • We were told beforehand that if we got stopped in customs and asked why we were in France to just say we are visiting the festival and not working there

AmPav has assured me that their program meets all legal requirements, so it seems this is more a question of ethics than law.

3. Accommodation

Part of the fee goes towards the students’ accommodation. This is described by AmPav as: “Shared accommodation in a European-style residence apartment“.

In practice, it seems that most students do not have their own bed to sleep in. Here’s what a few students had to say on the matter:

  • “The housing they “provide” is 3-4 people squished into 2 person rooms (during a pandemic), while harassing us about paying 200+ for premium rooms”.
  • “Each room has 2 couches and 1 private bedroom for 3 students”
  • “The residence we are staying in has 4 people stuffed into what is essentially a studio apartment”

4. Covid Response

Covid is still rampant in France, and all indications suggest that Cannes has been a hotbed of infections. This is not AmPav’s fault, and I understand that they have been following the protocols suggested by the Festival.

However, many students felt that AmPav was not prepared, was not taking enough steps to curb infections and was not suitably prepared to look after students once they were infected. I’ve been told that a large number of AmPav students currently have Covid, although due to medical privacy I cannot verify this myself.

Here’s what the students had to say on the matter:

  • “They sent an email about wearing masks in the Pavilion yet that rule is still not enforced. They sent an email about doing temperature tests yet that is not enforced. The food provided for us is served buffet style with no utensils so people are often grabbing it with their hands”
  • “The covid response has shown that they were not prepared at all”
  • “They didn’t have any covid tests so I had to buy my own”

5. Inappropriate Behaviour

It is a sad fact that the film industry contains some people who act in wholly unacceptable ways. This covers everything from unprofessional behaviour, derogatory words, right through to systemically preying on others for their own gratification.

Cannes only exacerbates this, due to the frenetic nature, clear power imbalances and the feeling of being away from normal structures/norms.

I haven’t heard any suggestion that any AmPav personnel acted in any way inappropriately themselves. Some students expressed relief that the AmPav staff were there and at least one detailed an incident where AmPav person stepped into to protect a student when they judged the situation to be becoming unsafe.

This is a good example of the benefits of an organised program whereby students have people looking out for them and somewhere to turn in a crisis. This is not explicitly listed on AmPav’s ‘What you get’ list but should be acknowledged as such a benefit.

The main story here is that the film industry remains somewhere where the young and vulnerable need to be consciously protected.

With that in mind, I did want to share a few concerns students had on this topic:

  • “There are no extra means of support or guidance for these minors and no one observes who they are hanging out with or what they are doing. It is absolutely a recipe for disaster”
  • “The reality is just older men talking about themselves then giving me their Instagram”
  • “Ampav as a collective could make it more known to each guest that they do not tolerate predatory behavior or attitudes towards the staff”
  • “Students have been asked to get into Ubers without knowing the destination or people at the airbnbs they end up with”
  • “During my time at my internship, [person at the company they were placed in] has made sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks”
  • “Even with the efforts of those with good intentions I haven’t spoke to one women that has worked an event and not felt uncomfortable at some point”
  • “Breakfast consist of bread and coffee. Food served at events and parties are thrown out rather than given to students… Students are encouraged to find parties for food which encourages meeting unscrupulous individuals.”
  • [Some students told me that there was a Zoom meeting in which the interns were told to go to parties on boats in order to get free food. It could be argued that sending hungry young college students to random boat parties is at odds with a duty of care]

How some of the interns feel

There is an emotional component to most of the interviews I conducted. Many felt misled, ignored, taken advantage of, and unheard. A few representative comments include:

  • “I’m scared to tell my parents any of this because they helped me finance part of the trip and I know if I were to tell them they would feel as if I was led astray”
  • “I feel heavily mislead”
  • “I just feel so taken advantage of, they don’t care about many of their student’s experiences, if any of them. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am”
  • “We are all so desperate for connections that we don’t want to speak out”
  • “I greatly dislike this program, and I’m glad that someone is saying something. Our professors pushed us to do this hard and also lied to us”
  • “I’m currently in the program and overwhelmingly every student I’ve spoken to feels upset”
  • “This internship left me …disheartened and feeling misled”
  • “I’m honestly devastated that I did not have a similar experience to the people I know who went before me”

There’s a lot right with the AmPav program

Over 90% of the responses I received were negative, but that’s to be expected. People who are unhappy or dissatisfied are far more motivated to respond to a call for comments than those having a great time, or those busying themselves with a successful internship.

I spoke to about 15% of the students on the program, meaning that it could well be the case that the vast majority of AmPav students are having a wholly positive experience. Furthermore, some of the issues listed above could be explained by the unusual nature of 2022 (i.e. backlog of students, meets a lack of practice for the organisers, meets Covid, meets Cannes).

There is much to recommend in the AmPav program. It places a large number of new entrants right into the heart of the film business. It has structures for supporting them and takes away many of the challenges and hurdles they could face on their own. Some of the professors I spoke to pointed out that they didn’t have the knowledge, experience or bandwidth to organise something like this on their own. Without AmPav, there would be far fewer students learning how the film business works.

Some of the positive things students said include:

  • “I believe the people that have been saying this (most likely first-years) have a very skewed perception about where this money is going – the fees are necessary to provide adequate accommodation for housing as well as full access to the entire two weeks of the festival; not a single penny is wasted and I have personally seen the AmPav Student Program staff go above and beyond to try and cut these fees down as much as humanly possible. … I would also like to emphasize that this is an internship program, not a vacation program; I believe many of the students who I’ve heard complain about ‘feeling misled’ simply applied with an inaccurate perception on the activities and placed their hopes in the wrong places”.
  • “The Ampav program has allowed me to take a monumental step in my film career. I’ve had an incredible amount of access to many different parts of the industry and made potentially lifelong friends. … Yes the price tag is hefty but such is international study programs”.

Where does this leave us?

As I said at the top, this story will evolve and change. Some of the issues stated may yet be resolved, some may have already been addressed. For example, as I write, there is uncertainty as to how those testing positive for Covid will be looked after in France once the festival ends. That said, I am confident that between AmPav and their college they will not be abandoned.

The questions that matter to me relate to the bigger picture. In talking to industry professionals while researching this article, a few questions kept coming up:

  • Pay to serve. Is it morally right to be charging people to work in unpaid service jobs?
  • Shock. Why are students surprised by the state of accommodation and the work they were expected to do? Is this a problem with the communication given in advance and the promises made?
  • Discontent. Why are so many students deeply unhappy with their Cannes 2022 experience? Is it just entitled grumbling over understandable teething problems, or does there need to be a re-centring of priorities and communication?
  • The future. What should change for Cannes 2023 and beyond?

Epilogue

As a white, middle-class male who has a place in the industry, I am privileged to be beyond most of these concerns. To be honest, I didn’t even see them. But now that I have, I cannot ignore them.

We as an industry need to do a better job in protecting people than we are right now – in all aspects of the industry. That starts with acknowledging what’s happening.

If you have something to say on the matter – speak up.

And if you have the privilege to be able to do so publicly, damn well use it.

In the reporting of this story, I have received a number of ‘off the record’ quotes from senior people in the industry agreeing that aspects of the experience listed above are not acceptable. Now is the time to say so in public.

Let’s have a conversation. Tweet, post, comment. Tag me @stephenfollows and I’ll amplify your voice.

Notes

  • If I have made a factual error, please contact me or leave a comment. I will fix errors and note them in the Change Log.
  • If you have an experience you wish to share, please add a comment or contact me directly, either via this form or via a private message on Twitter. Unless you say otherwise, I will keep all names and identifying information private. I very much want people to go ‘on the record’ if they choose, but I appreciate how some people feel that they may receive reprisals if they were to do so. It’s important I know you are genuine, but I do not need to publish your name.
  • If you disagree with anything in this article, please leave a respectful comment or contact me directly. I’m all for debate, I would like to hear differing opinions and there is likely to be a diversity of experiences on this topic. Let’s just keep it civil, please.
  • I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the quotes listed above. They are entirely the views of their authors and I have not had any of the experiences mentioned. I am seeking to share other people’s points of view, not make statements beyond my knowledge or training. If I’ve overreached, please contact me and I’ll fix it.
  • All quotes are verbatim, except where the original text would reveal personal information, when the context was unclear or edited for brevity.

Images came from Adobe, from AmPav interns and @jenn_bouani.

Responses

  • I reached out to AmPav a few times prior to publication but it wasn’t until the day after release that we finally spoke directly on the issues raised. Their perspective was useful and will soon be reflected in this piece.
  • I have emailed 60+ other pavilions and country representatives to ask if all their staff are paid and if they have any unpaid student schemes. So far, I have had the following responses:
    • UK Pavilion and Screen Australia say they pay all their staff and don’t run any unpaid or student schemes.
    • Film USA. “Film USA is a non-profit organization to represent film commissions and promote film production across the USA… Our funding is entirely from our sponsors… we are a staff of two: Tony and myself. We are not paid. We have a handful of amazing and supportive friends who have volunteered this year. Our workshops are free, we have free happy hours, and it is a free place open to all to come and sit down and meet people“.
  • I have emailed over 80 professors at the colleges listed on the AmPav site. Some have responded privately, but most have not yet. None have gone ‘on the record’ yet. One said:
    • “A female colleague of mine who was a mentor in a subsequent year has stopped recommending the program and encouraged the school to do the same.  I will be much more direct in my objections in the future.  I will also reach out to the students who attended this year, as both are communicative and will be honest with me”

Change Log

I will note alterations to the article here.

  • Added that AmPav is owned by Penske Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, Variety and IndieWire.
  • Added professor quote at the end.
  • Updated one of the subheadings to reflect that the students get more than just a placement for their fee.
  • Removed questions around the legal status of the bar/restaurant work as AmPav have assured me it is all legal. I’m not a lawyer but have no reason to doubt them.
  • I have updated the Responses section with the fact AmPav and I have now spoken directly.

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