There were swarms of people in tuxedos and cocktail dresses, which meant it was time for Felix Hausfater to start working it.
The 19-year-old medical student from Paris caught the eye of a promising lead, gestured meaningfully, then realized it was a dead end. He whirled around to a middle-age woman — no dice — then spun again and flashed a handwritten sign to a young couple, who politely shook their heads.
"It's been three hours. But I have some tricks for the fourth hour," he said, grinning to a reporter.
Hausfater's goal was hardly a glamorous party invite or even a date: It was a ticket to a new movie by the Dardenne brothers, the Belgian naturalist art-house filmmakers.
Every year, thousands of movie-industry insiders, celebrities, journalists and hangers-on descend on this glitzy seaside city in southern France for the 12-day Cannes Film Festival, where amid their partying and deal-making they see movies by the world's most acclaimed directors.
Fans wielding camera phones, meanwhile, pack the streets hoping for a glimpse of a celebrity. (Those who might be nearby when a Marion Cotillard or Ryan Gosling sighting goes down would do well to pack some earplugs.)
But that isn't what interests people like Hausfater. He is drawn by the films themselves, obscure art-house offerings that months later might attract barely a dozen customers to the ArcLight on a Saturday afternoon.
He and other hard-core French fans use every trick they can to work the elites for a ticket — un invitation, s'il vous plait, as their signs and sweetly haunting mantras suggest — that has fallen through the cracks.
Unlike other major film festivals, most Cannes screenings don't sell tickets to the public. But for the devoted there is always a way. So a community has developed, complete with tactics and protocols.
Call them the Cannes Deadheads, people who come from hundreds of miles away to beg at a place where begging is as gauche as wearing last season's Louis Vuitton.
They cram into dingy apartments, patrolling the streets for hours or even days, in blazing heat and sheeting rain, for the Holy Grail: entrance, for a few hours, to rooms of plush chairs and wide screens. Many of these movies will be released in France a few weeks or even days after the festival closes Sunday. But that, they will tell you if you dare to ask, is not the point.
The point is about being the person to see it right here, right now, at the moment of cinematic creation. (Nothing compares to the pleasure of watching — and telling people you watched — "The Artist" at its first showing, before it became mainstream.)
" 'The Rover,' it's 'The Rover' I'm looking for because I'm a rover," Hausfater said, switching his pitch to English for some wordplay as he alluded to the new post-apocalyptic western starring Guy Pearce and the "Twilight" actor Robert Pattinson.
Then, as if letting someone in on a secret, he lowered his voice and said to a reporter, "It always helps if you make a pun."
Hausfater has been plying these streets for tickets since he was in high school. This year, he brought his girlfriend, who was holding a sign but looked skeptical about the proceedings.
"It helps to have a pretty young woman," he said flatteringly as she smiled, then he muttered, "Of course, it means I need to get two tickets instead of one."
There is something reassuring about the subculture, which proves that no matter how corporatized global entertainment has become, true fandom always prevails — providing you have enough patience, pluck and magic markers.
They're kind of like music groupies, but with a decidedly French cineaste twist.
Lauren Moreau, a nurse who lives in a nearby town, said she had been among the Cannes-heads for seven consecutive years. "I've seen every Ken Loach and Mike Leigh movie since I've been coming here," she said, as she took a break from scouring for a ticket to Loach's latest to expound on the British filmmakers' contrasting styles.
In the age of Facebook and StubHub, this subculture is an analogue affair. These transactions are always conducted in the street, on the fly, with the right word or a serendipitous glance.
The Deadheads' ground zero is a well-trafficked area on the main Boulevard de la Croisette outside the building that houses the media and industry center, smack dab between the Lumiere and the Debussy, the festival's two main screening venues. It is near and around those doors that many will congregate, bearing signs and beseeching looks to those who must pass them on the way out.
But don't be fooled, say the more seasoned ticket scourers; tickets can be had up and down the Croisette. And because they're waters less trawled, the competition is scarcer.
Many of the Cannes-heads operate in groups.
Manon Bordaberry, a film student in Paris, came down with a few friends to rent an apartment about 40 minutes out of town. On the long train ride each morning, she and friends will plan their attack.
"I have one person here and one there," she said, gesturing to strategic points near Cannes' massive Palais des Festivals complex, like she was planning the heist in the 1950s caper film "Rififi." If one person gets a ticket, she added, they'll continue seeking for the rest of the group,
Curiously, this democratic slice of film-fan culture has a Big Brother element in the Cannes ticketing system to thank.
When the festival grants tickets to someone — say an allotment to a producer or an individual ticket to a reporter — it electronically tracks if those tickets are used. Though festival organizers have never confirmed this, the widespread belief is that hitting a certain threshold of unused tickets would result in a downgrade in one's badge the following year. So festival-goers have an incentive to make sure their tickets are used, no matter by whom.
A festival spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the Cannes-head scene, but with the bazaar taking place in view of dozens of festival officials, it clearly sanctions the giveaway.
Money, however, is never exchanged, and the suggestion of a black market in coveted tickets has roughly the same effect of telling someone here that Jean-Luc Godard should make a superhero movie.
"We're fans here," said Martine Navide, who had come with her husband for the 20th straight year. "Money?" She shook her head quickly.
The actual exchange is made quickly, because ticket-donors don't want to be mobbed by others. "Sometimes you'll barely know you have one until they've passed," Bordaberry said.
A man who gave his name only as Robert, seen giving away a ticket, said he had done so several times over the years. How does he pick among the hundreds of searching eyes? "Just the person who wants it the most. Or who looks like they've been out here the longest."
On Thursday it was pouring, and the ticket-seekers had gathered under overhangs.
Lucas Pavarel looked all ready for a premiere in his beige tuxedo but said he had been waiting for hours hoping for a ticket to the French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan's "Mommy," to no avail. He looked dejected, a little like the misunderstood boy from "The 400 Blows."
It was his first time doing this, and he wondered if his sign and approach were wrong. When asked how he would describe that approach, a female companion behind him piped up: "Desperate."
But not far away stood Hausfater, who had just hustled a ticket.
"Always works," he gloated, as he flashed the magic paper, its silver edges catching the light. He pointed at a play-on-words on his handwritten sign. "Every time."