By Alexandria Sage
CANNES France (Reuters) - Packed behind security barriers, scorched by the sun and pelted by rain, they are the real stars of the Cannes film festival - the intrepid autograph hunters.
The fans on the front line of the world's largest cinema showcase, perched on stepladders across from the famous red carpet steps, are ecstatic about all the celebrities and the glamour.
"I'm living my dream ... There's no one happier than I am. It's been building up since when I was six or seven," said Martine Santoro, 61, who watched the images from Cannes when she was a child in Paris and vowed to get there one day in person.
A toy piano rigged up on the front of Santoro's stepladder is her homage to this year's festival jury president, "The Piano" director Jane Campion.
The instrument caught Campion's eye on opening night and she came over to sign an autograph, as did Nicole Kidman, there to promote her starring role in "Grace of Monaco".
As the movie legends pass by, the hunters scream and implore, waving notepads and pens.
"Those who want autographs put themselves in front, and those who want photos go behind, it works out nicely. It's the hierarchy of the stepladders," said Marseille resident Jean-Marc Stahl, 64, attending his 19th Cannes.
"Once it starts, and everyone is in place, you can't move around anymore. You're stuck."
Competition for a good position is fierce. Stahl lined up five days before the festival opened to nab a front-row spot and now takes turns with others to guard against interlopers.
"There are people who show up on Wednesday morning for the opening night and they say, 'Okay, I'm going to put my stuff here' and we say, 'Whoa, wait a minute, no way!'"
In the lulls between celebrity sightings, the autograph hunters relax into their own Cannes party.
"Of course, we have champagne," said Santoro. "And we drink rose at night ... it's very convivial." Before or after the red carpet arrivals? "Both."
Not all of the stars are as accommodating as Kidman.
Actress Kristen Stewart provoked boos, hisses and tears when she turned her back on fans who had come from all over France to see the "Twilight" star three years ago, Santoro said.
Action star Bruce Willis pulled the same stunt, said Stahl.
"One year, he got out of the car and he was scared of the crowd, he took off," Stahl said. "It's crazy because when you see him, he's such a tough guy in films, but no. He got booed."
Not far from the autograph seekers, standing outside the main festival building is Philippe Durand, holding a small sign in French: "An invite, please."
The 36-year-old is a member of another Cannes coterie - the small army of movie buffs hoping to persuade passing festival-goers to hand over spare tickets to screenings not open to the public.
He and his fellow ticket hunters are "rendering a service" to festival organizers, making sure they had full houses for screenings.
"It's a different concept," said Durand, who traveled from Paris and had managed to see four or five films out of the 18 competing for the main Palme d'Or prize.
"We're really not into seeing the stars, we just want to see the films."
(Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Andrew Heavens)