Nikki Parker

AT A LOSS: Nikki Parker, who was in her room both times a thief entered, says only Cannes “has this problem.” (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

AT THE Cannes Film Festival, there are tales of cat burglars, violent street fights, car robberies and even a pepper-sprayed mogul. But instead of events experienced on the big screen, they are real-life assaults on festival-goers, who often find themselves pressed to keep it all very hush-hush.

The international cinema showcase, which runs today through May 25, is known for its star-jammed red carpets and black-tie premieres. Private jets offload the Hollywood elite, luxury yachts fill the bay, and stars and movie financiers party until dawn, drawing bandits like moths to a flame.

"It's a convention of thieves," says Tom Luddy, a co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival. He is speaking from personal experience: His Cannes hotel room and its safe were cleaned out several years ago. "The pickpockets know it's perfect hunting grounds. They must come from all over the world."

"Every villain going who's worth his salt comes," adds Trevor Wright, a sales representative at the Swiss-based Omega Entertainment who was robbed at last year's festival. "The police told me that [criminals] just come in droves . . . [that] there's a massive spike in crime" during the festival.

Because they often travel with bodyguards, celebrities visiting Cannes are much harder targets. Those in attendance not fortunate enough to have their own security teams are much more likely to be victimized.

Although one local law enforcement commander says crime during the festival is actually on the decline, half a dozen recent victims contend otherwise. Their stories are largely unique to Cannes, which during the rest of the year is a relatively tranquil resort town. But you don't hear much about the crime blotter at the Sundance, Toronto or Telluride festivals. Some of those who have been burglarized at Cannes say they are encouraged by their hotels not to publicize their losses.

Emilie Georges, managing director of French sales company Memento Films International, believes that the crime stories are downplayed because there is an effort "to stifle all sense of any criminal doings during the festival in order to protect its image."

Intruder alert

While some of the Cannes incidents were relatively minor -- a stolen purse, a lifted wallet -- several festival-goers endured terrifying confrontations with intruders breaking into their hotel rooms in the dark of night.

At last year's festival, Graham King, the Oscar-winning producer of "The Departed," returned to his villa on the grounds of the ultra-luxurious Hotel du Cap, the favored beachfront lodging of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Rather than finding a maid turning down his sheets, King discovered burglars in the midst of a break-in. The thieves fled, but not before blasting King with pepper spray and grabbing the purse of one of his colleagues as they ran out. The hotel says it no longer rents King's villa but declined to further comment.

Nikki Parker, who heads up international film publicity at the public relations giant Rogers & Cowan, has been ripped off not once but twice at recent Cannes festivals. In the first instance, about 10 years ago, a cat burglar apparently scaled her hotel's walls, climbed through her third-floor balcony doors and cleaned Parker out while she was sleeping. Parker had recently visited the bank to pay the employees of the marketing company she then ran, and the intruder made off with about $9,000.

Years later, Parker awoke when an intruder was trying to break into her first-floor room at Cannes' Sun Riviera hotel. "I saw this figure at my French door with a mask on," Parker says. "He was outside on my balcony, trying to pick the lock and get into the room. I screamed my head off, but it didn't deter him. He came in, and we actually had a fight."

As she wrestled with the thief over her purse, Parker wondered if her possessions were worth her life. "I suddenly pictured him perhaps having a knife, and I backed down." She lost the purse, and the hotel lost a customer. Producer King, who was Parker's client at the time, found her a room at the Carlton Hotel, where she continues to stay, but she still asks for a room on a high floor.

"There's no other [festival] that I've heard of that has this problem," Parker says. "

The manager of the Sun Riviera Hotel, Marie-Pierre Aymard, who has been at the hotel for the last three months, says that she's aware of an incident about four years ago involving a guest (she couldn't say if it was Parker or not) but that, to her knowledge, nothing nefarious has happened since. There is also full-time security at the hotel now.

François Yon, co-founder of the French sales company Films Distribution, says that the areas closest to one of the town's fanciest shopping streets and Cannes' famous beachfront boulevard are out of harm's way.

"Cannes is less dangerous than it was -- thanks to a very strong police presence -- as long as you stay between Rue d'Antibes and the Croisette," Yon says. "Beyond the highway, it is a jungle."

But even the fanciest hotels along the Croisette can be dangerous. Attending the 2001 festival to present "Moulin Rouge," Robin Davids of 20th Century Fox publicity had her purse (and passport) stolen from underneath an outdoor restaurant table while she had lunch at the swank Hotel Martinez. Working for Universal Pictures in Cannes several years ago, film publicist Thomas Castañeda (now part of the publicity firm Nadia Bronson & Associates) lost his possessions when his Carlton room was burglarized.

Bill Pence, director of Dartmouth's film school and a co-founder of the Telluride festival, was lining up for a Cannes screening in the early 1990s on the Rue d'Antibes with his wife, Stella, when he felt a light touch on his buttocks. "I said, 'Stella, will you stop that!' And she said, 'I'm not touching you.' " A pickpocket was, and Pence's wallet was gone.