Fashion For Relief Tickets
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The moment of truth comes when you pick up your accreditation. You flip over the badge and check the color. Then you know where you stand. Still a Yellow or a Blue? Or have you risen in the ranks, up to Pink or even — dare to dream — a White?

Cannes Film Festival Accreditation
Cannes Film Festival Accreditation

In most societies, a social ranking is a complicated process with elaborate signals and codes, a system that can take outsiders years to navigate successfully. Cannes keeps things simple. Your status is declared instantly by the color of your badge. “It’s a caste system, and your badge is your rank,” says one British PR exec, a 20-year Cannes veteran. “Cannes’ hierarchies make Downton Abbey look like a model of meritocracy.”

And, like an Indian peasant under the Raj, every regular festival attendee absorbs Cannes’ class rankings as if by instinct. At the bottom — Cannes’ underclass — are the Yellows. Just above them are the Blues, the most numerous and the festival’s working class. Then comes Pink, the middle class, or petite bourgeoisie. Right above, the upper middle class is Pink with a yellow dot. And at the top, Cannes’ 1 percent, are Les Blancs — holders of the coveted white badges.

There also are gray and orange badges for photographers, green for film and sound crews, and the market’s black badges for industry attendees. But while they all give specific access — to photocalls, say, or market screenings — they carry no significance in terms of social ranking. A market badge is a market badge is a market badge, but for the critics vetting the films and the reporters covering the proceedings, the shade of your badge determines your festival experience. It grants — or denies — access to in-demand screenings, photocalls and news conferences. That in turn translates into access to talent. If you can’t get in to watch a high-demand film, fat chance lining up the interview afterward with the stars.

Invitations to the luncheon with the Mayor of Cannes
Invitations to the luncheon with the Mayor of Cannes

How Cannes decides who gets what badge is a closely guarded secret. “It is internal information,” says the accreditation office, refusing even to reveal how many of each type it issues (the exact ratio changes from year to year). Factors that determine the ranking include the importance and size of one’s media outlet, frequency of publication, and expected festival coverage. Though Cannes doesn’t acknowledge it, a print is still privileged over online. Last year, there were 735 badges issued for online publications, compared with 1,305 for print (and another 380 for press agencies). Few bloggers get above yellow. But one can never take one’s status for granted.

“It’s often surprising [who gets what badge],” says Cannes regular Charles MacDonald, who is repping three competition films at this year’s festival: Jia Zhangke‘s Mountains May DepartMon Roi from director Maiwenn and Justin Kurzel‘s Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. “It’s hard to see why one person is promoted to a pink or white and another drops down. Suddenly an important journalist or critic may have a tough time getting in to see your film.”

Every morning, often hours before the first competition screening, the Yellows and Blues, like refugees, line up in designated holding pens. Later come the Pinks, queueing in more dignified, and substantially shorter, lines. Then, shortly before the screening starts, the Whites arrive, rushed through by festival security ahead of the lumpen pack.

Inside, the hierarchy is maintained. Whites and Pinks enjoy the prime seats while Blues and the few Yellows lucky enough to get in are relegated to the nosebleed sections of the balconies. It’s a similar story with press events. Whites are waved through while Blues and Yellows beg for access.

Class envy abounds. The Yellows look covetously at the Blues, who long to ascend to Pink status, while the Whites typically adopt the casual air of landed gentry. “Once you’ve gotten the white, you act as if it’s no big deal,” says a reviewer for one of Europe’s top broadsheets and a longtime carte blanche holder. “Everyone looking at you knows you’ve made it.” That’s everyone: A casual flash of a white badge is usually enough to stroll past hotel and beach security, no questions asked.

Talent, of course, goes by its own rules. Some are given protocol badges (with a blue circle) that act as backstage passes and allow holders to pick up tickets for red-carpet premieres. But the festival keeps tabs on who actually attends, MacDonald notes, so if VIPs ask for gala tickets, they’d better go. “The festival has gotten a lot better in terms of giving talent access; it’s usually no problem anymore getting people where they have to go,” says fest veteran Nikki Parker, a former PR exec with Rogers & Cowan.

Compare that to a few years back when a badgeless Faye Dunaway was seen screaming at a theater attendee who refused to let her pass. (This reporter, with his white badge, strolled right in.)

There are rumors — never confirmed — of an all-access top-level badge for the likes of Carla Bruni and Harvey Weinstein. This Willy Wonka-esque golden ticket is said to open up the most private of Cannes’ inner sanctums.

“Every year they reassess everyone, and you see people climbing up the ladder — or slipping down,” says MacDonald. Sliding down the color scale is Cannes’ ultimate disgrace. When this reporter spotted a colleague who moved from an august publication to a blog — and was downgraded from white to blue — it felt like seeing a former boss in the unemployment line.

Critics (Yellows and Blues mainly) complain that Cannes’ color coding is elitist and degrading. But most grudgingly acknowledge the necessity of a caste system for a fest that issues nearly 5,000 press badges each year. “Can you imagine the photocalls?” says Parker. “The system is strict and security can be overzealous at times. But without it, it would be chaos.

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Editor in Chief of Ikon London Magazine, journalist, film producer and founder of The DAFTA Film Awards (The DAFTAs).