Why Cannes standing ovations are so ludicrously long – and what they really mean

Michael Moore enjoying his 20-minute ovation for Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004
Michael Moore enjoying his 20-minute ovation for Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 - Alamy

What on earth could induce 2,300 people to get on their feet and applaud for 113 minutes? The answer is 14 films on the programme at Cannes this year, whose standing ovations were timed and their durations reported in the trade press.

Note that this isn’t how long audiences spent clapping at the 2024 edition of the festival. With around 70 features in the official selection and a further 40 or so in the sidebars, the true total probably clocks in at somewhere around nine hours. It’s just a selection from the more newsworthy premieres – films like Demi Moore’s grisly body horror The Substance (11 minutes), the Donald Trump biopic The Apprentice (seven), and the Mad Max prequel Furiosa (six).

In ordinary life, the idea of clapping anything for 11 minutes, never mind how transporting it was, would seem faintly unhinged. But compared to its serener rivals Venice and Berlin, Cannes has never been an especially hinged place. The standing ovations here are uniquely and notoriously long, and their lengths are often news. (Michael Moore was given 20 minutes for Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, but the record-holder remains Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which in 2006 was applauded for a wrist-spraining 22 minutes.) So why does it happen – and why here?

“There’s a reverence for the filmmaker here which isn’t part of the makeup of any other festival,” says a buyer for an international distributor, who has been attending Cannes for 15 years. “Some of the worst films I’ve ever seen have received standing ovations at Cannes. But the French love the idea of the director as auteur, so treat them in this more elevated way than at, say, Venice.”

Another crucial distinction is the glamour of the Cannes brand itself. “In a way that none of the other big festivals are, Cannes is a global news event,” explains a veteran publicist who has been launching films at the festival for more than 30 years. “How films are received here becomes part of their story.”

Take Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which was famously booed by the French in 2006. “Those boos were a day-one story that has dogged it throughout its life,” the publicist says.

Hence why the circulation of ovation times has now become routine. “The film teams have a vested interest in putting a positive spin on things as fast as they can. And the applause is the very first vaguely tangible sign of how it went down.”

For the ovation as dastardly PR stratagem, take the 15 minutes that met Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron’s sweaty Florida noir The Paperboy in 2012.

“I happen to know that was sustained by the film team alone,” the buyer confides. “The reactions at the press screening that morning had been so toxic they were determined to change the story, so a long ovation became the easiest way to do it.” Lo and behold, it remains in joint fifth place on Wikipedia’s all-time chart.

The record-breaking 22-minute ovation for Pan's Labyrinth in 2006
The record-breaking 22-minute ovation for Pan's Labyrinth in 2006 - AP

Ovations don’t occur at every screening. Typically, within the official selection, they’re restricted to the evening galas held in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, while the press screenings (where the boos and walkouts occur) take place in the Salle Debussy next door.

Around an eighth of the 2,300-strong Lumière audience will usually be made up of the film team and members of various distribution companies who have bought the rights for their respective territories – so all have a vested interest in the film playing well. And the remainder, who have dressed up in evening wear and may have had to beg and scramble for a ticket, are also arguably inclined to treat the experience as something more profound than two-for-one night at the local multiplex back home.

“The gala performances are always infinitely more generous,” the late director Alan Parker, whose Bugsy Malone competed at Cannes in 1976, told the journalist Cari Beauchamp.

“It no doubt affects you if it’s your film the people are watching. It’s an easy mistake to fall into, thinking your ‘reception’ at Cannes was this screening. You can be sabotaged at the screenings you don’t attend. No wonder everyone is surprised when they don’t get a prize.”

Members of the festival jury do attend the galas, but tend to scuttle out during the credits, so as not to be swayed by what follows. And even the directors – who are obliged to stand there and take it, while a camera beams their expression directly onto the cinema screen, tend to treat it as a ritual, rather than a more concrete expression of the film’s success.

Kevin Costner receiving his nine-minute ovation for Horizon: An American Saga in 2024
Kevin Costner receiving his nine-minute ovation for Horizon: An American Saga in 2024 - Alamy

“Sometimes I’ve had the unfortunate job of telling someone the reviews of their film have been, shall we say, equivocal,” says the publicist, “and they’ll reply, ‘But we had such a fantastic reaction tonight.’ And you have to say, ‘Yes mate, but that was the official screening.’ Ultimately everyone understands that it’s flam-flam.”

So what do they actually do? “They create one of the things Cannes is best at, which is moments of drama,” the publicist continues. “Nobody wants to say, ‘Oh, the film was well-received.’ They’d rather have viral footage of famous people looking as if they might burst into tears.”

That was what was obtained at this year’s premiere of Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga (ovation length: nine minutes): the wet gleam visible in Costner’s eye itself became a reason for the audience to keep on applauding, in the hope it might grow into a drop.

Others play it cooler, though with equally viral results. Late in the five-minute ovation for Leos Carax’s Annette in 2021, star Adam Driver nonchalantly lit a cigarette, while during Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s seven minutes in 2019, director Quentin Tarantino briefly danced the Batusi.

For younger, less experienced directors, it can be daunting. “One of our filmmakers recently said she had assumed the short burst of applause at the start of the credits was her famous Cannes ovation,” remembers the buyer, “and it was over in 30 seconds.

“She spent the whole final five minutes of her film thinking it had bombed. Then the lights came up and the cameraman came in, and everyone got on their feet. She said afterwards she hadn’t realised how invested she was in that moment.”

Has a film ever not been applauded at Cannes? “Hmm,” the publicist muses. “The only one I can remember was Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Mâcon, and that was all the way back in 1993. The only sound I’ve associated with that one was the regular clack-clack-clack of emptying seats snapping back upright.”

And the feeblest recent entry? “Southland Tales, in 2006. That really was just scattered, dutiful applause. People were largely on their feet so they could get out.”

“But that wouldn’t happen now,” adds the buyer. “No matter how disappointed they were, the film team would stay there clapping until they were certain an avoidable PR disaster had been staved off.”

Even so, surely producers and finance types love it – this moment of glory at the world’s biggest film festival, where they can revel in the adulation of their peers?

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” the buyer says. “But as soon as they’re outside, you can bet they’re all checking their phones to read the reviews.”