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At Cannes' regal palace of cinema, talk of television's ascendance

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CANNES, France - The annual Cannes festival on the French Riviera is the grandest platform in the world for the highest ambitions of film, a place where the art form is worshipped with wild passion and adoring reverence. Movies are projected pristinely in regal theatres, where they're greeted by the world's cinephiles with feverish excitement.

But even at this bastion of the big screen, director after director has come through preaching the opportunities of the small screen. Up and down the Croisette, talk of TV's ascendance is rampant.

"The way that things are moving because of the financing of films, television has almost become where a lot of people seek creativity," said Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who premiered at the festival his Bangkok noir "Only God Forgives," starring Ryan Gosling. "It's opened up a whole new arena."

Danish TV's current quality has spread internationally (including "The Killing," which was remade in America). Refn, the director of "Drive," is working on his television debut, a version of the 1969 French science fiction film "Barbarella" for France's Canal Plus.

Refn said that in the past 10 years, TV has levelled the field, creatively, and is now "sometimes much more satisfying than anything around."

"I love television," he said. "I love the size of it. I love to touch them. I like to watch them. I love the remote control. I love the power of the remote control. I love everything about the television."

One of this year's most notable films in competition won't even be released theatrically in the U.S.: Steven Soderbergh's Liberace melodrama "Behind the Candelabra." Hollywood studios passed on the film, which stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, suggesting that it was too gay to play at the box office. HBO picked up the $23 million film and will air it Sunday.

Soderbergh, long considered one of America's finest filmmaking talents, is stepping away from moviemaking, but is enthusiastically moving into television. He'll reportedly make a 10-episode series about a turn-of-the-century New York hospital, starring Clive Owen. (Soderbergh also produced the 2003 Washington, D.C., drama "K Street.")

"There's a lot of great stuff being made," said Soderbergh. "You can go narrow and deep, and I like that. And this is all ("Sopranos" creator) David Chase. He single-handedly rebuilt the landscape. Anything that's on now that's any good is standing on his shoulders."

"I don't hear anybody talking about movies the way they talk about TV right now," said Soderbergh.

But Cannes remains one of the great arguments for the vibrancy of movies. Year after year, it gathers together many of the world's best films, and this year's festival, the 66th, has been no different in that respect.

Audiences have been wowed by the Coen brothers' wry melancholy ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), the classical skillfulness of James Gray ("The Immigrant"), the shambling grandeur of Paolo Sorrentino ("The Great Beauty") and many other sensory feasts. At Cannes, cinema is utterly alive.

But there are economic forces at work that have contributed to the shift. As audiences have becoming increasingly fractured, studios have concentrated more on enormous blockbusters. While advances in film equipment have made making a movie easier, getting it seen has become harder.

Director James Toback premiered at Cannes his "Seduced and Abandoned," a documentary he made with Alec Baldwin. The two filmed their sometimes humiliating efforts to find financing — and the necessary marketing budget — for an adult drama. With appearances from Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, the movie often feels like a funeral for the days of popular, dangerous movies.

"The movie business is tough, and it's tougher now than ever," said Baldwin, who largely stepped out of film to star in Tina Fey's acclaimed sitcom "30 Rock." ''Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever make another movie again."

"Seduced and Abandoned," fittingly, was picked up not for theatrical release, but by HBO. (The network will also broadcast another film at Cannes playing out of competition, Stephen Frears' documentary "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight.")

David Fincher's entry to television with the political thriller "House of Cards" for Netflix sent reverberations through the business, partly because Fincher is such a widely respected filmmaker.

But talent is increasingly flocking to TV because of acclaimed shows like "Mad Men," ''Downton Abbey," ''Girls," ''Breaking Bad" and many others. The medium allows for more novelistic storytelling and, often, greater exposure.

"It's nice for actors because more people see it," said Kristin Scott Thomas, who stars in "Only God Forgives." ''You can spend weeks and weeks and weeks making a film that very few people will see, and that's sort of dispiriting."

"It's very satisfying when millions see something," she added. "It's as simple as that."

Not everyone, though, endorsed TV at Cannes. The 87-year-old Jerry Lewis barked: "Never watch television, if you can help it." Henri Behar, the moderator of Lewis' press conference, noted that that was an appropriate sentiment at a film festival.


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