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Many U.S. pix can Cannes

The food is felicitous, the parties clangorous, and the weather usually beneficent. On the surface, the Cannes Film Festival, which starts this week, falls into the category of “What’s not to like?”

Well, plenty. To Hollywood, at least, Cannes, more than ever, is a mixed blessing. Studio chieftains love to play at the Hotel du Cap, but even they are embarrassed by the pricetag. Filmmakers covet the Cannes publicity machine, but they’re also scared of the capricious audiences and quarrelsome critics.

Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with Cannes is exemplified by this year’s program.

“Godzilla,” a movie that’s not precisely in the footsteps of Fellini and Godard, will close the festival. On the other hand, the distributors of movies like “The Truman Show,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “Bulworth” are keeping their distance – this despite superb critical buzz.

“It’s almost like Hollywood wants to strengthen our stereotypes about American movies,” observes one French producer who prefers not to be identified, but who regrets the absence of “upscale” U.S. entries.

The truth, of course, relates more to pragmatism than to stereotypes. Bringing an American movie to Cannes is a high-risk venture. Fest historians may point to the almost orgasmic receptions accorded “MASH” and “Apocalypse Now” in years past, but many also remember the boos and hisses that greeted other pictures.

Even when an American movie received accolades at Cannes, the rewards have been unimpressive. Audiences loved “L.A. Confidential” last year; even the lavish party was a smash. None of this helped the box office much.

Hence, to some American filmmakers, taking a movie to Cannes is about as traumatizing as receiving your check-out tab at the Hotel du Cap. The question one instantly asks oneself: Why am I here? Will payment of this bill alter the balance of trade?

I talked with a senior studio executive not long ago who was wrestling with the Cannes issue. His company will shortly release an excellent movie that could clearly benefit from some Cannes hype. Nonetheless he was finding the decision tortuous.

“This picture can’t miss,” he enthused.

“In that case, surely you’re taking it to Cannes,” I offered.

“You can’t read those audiences over there,” he said, frowning. “They can be an assassination squad.”

“If you feel that way, then …”

“Of course, every journalist in Europe goes to Cannes,” he continued. “It’s a fabulous launching pad.”

“In that case …”

“Do you know what it costs?” he snapped. “We’re talking lavish parties. We’re talking shipping over the stars and director. We’re talking maybe a million bucks.”

“Then who needs it?” I replied, hoping to terminate the discussion.

“From a personal standpoint, of course, the networking at Cannes is a plus. You’re at the center of the action.”

“That’s something to consider,” I offered wearily.

“But all those rude waiters. And deciphering those padded bills. Besides, the food’s too rich – after a couple of days you’re reaching for a stomach pump.”

I had had enough. “Look, it’s not worth all this self-flagellation.”

“I’ll do what’s good for the picture,” he insisted, suddenly seizing the high ground. “This movie’s great. I’m going for it.”

A few days later he called to tell me he had changed his mind. “It isn’t just me – it’s also the filmmaker and the producer. They just don’t feel the upside warrants the risk.”

“Good decision,” I said. “Besides, you don’t want to compete with ‘Godzilla.’ ”

” ‘Godzilla’!” he replied, stung. “My movie’s 50 times better than that retro reptile. They’re just doing it for the publicity.”

“But the risk…?”

“There’s no risk with ‘Godzilla,’ ” he said. “Unless the audiences hate it, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, making a mental note to skip Cannes this year.

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