Fox takes risk on the Riviera

'Rouge' schmooze cues renewed rapport between H'w'd, Cannes

On May 9, the Cannes Intl. Film Festival will open with 20th Century Fox’s summer biggie “Moulin Rouge” — a perfect example of the newfound detente between Hollywood and the fest.

The 54th annual Cannes Festival seems poised for its jazziest, most showbizzy lineup in years — and, not coincidentally, its most successful collaboration with Hollywood in memory.

Fox co-topper Tom Rothman says the Baz Luhrmann-directed film was “aggressively pursued” by fest chief Gilles Jacob and the folks at Cannes.

But in agreeing to supply the film, Fox is going where “The Phantom Menace,” “The Truman Show” and “Gladiator” feared to tread. Fox is flying in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that a Cannes launch offers plenty of downside, with only a faint hope for an upside.

Aside from Jacob, Cannes’ shifting tone can be traced to new fest managing director Veronique Cayla and especially artistic director Thierry Fremaux, whose mandate includes bringing Hollywood fare to the festival.

So everything between Hollywood and the Croisette would seem to be hunky-dory.

Except, that is, for the ticklish matter of the party.

Fox and the fest have not yet agreed about the opening night fete, and parties serve as a microcosm of the fact that Hollywood and Cannes always have very different agendas.

Cannes wants its parties to be elegant, dignified, even staid: symbolic celebrations of France that will please older fest-goers.

Fox, on the other hand, wants sizzle.

“There is a connection between ‘Moulin Rouge’ and the party at Cannes,” says Rothman. “Part of the reason we are going to Cannes is to celebrate a film that we are very proud of. We want to show it off.”

And the best way to show it off is by having fun. The film, a brash and innovative musical centered around Pigalle’s notorious red-light district, lends itself to a raucous party rather than the usual Cannes opening-gala in the tent next to the Palais: a roster of long-winded speeches, all in French, with no translation for the international audience.

One alternative for Fox might be a wilder bash at nearby Palm Beach, where the studio and the fest could accommodate more partygoers and acquire better buzz. And, since Fox is shouldering much of the party costs, it wants the biggest bang for its big bucks.

“There have been no absolute decisions made about the party,” says Bob Harper, vice chairman of 20th Century Fox, who oversees marketing. “We are going to do something unique, but we’re not sure what yet.”

But a party, of course, is just one example of the differences between Hollywood Blvd. and the Croisette.

From the 1950s through the early 1980s, Cannes was a showcase for Hollywood’s best, from “All About Eve” and “Friendly Persuasion” to “MASH,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”

But for the past few decades, the studios and the fest, despite their mutual fascination, have had an uneasy relationship.

Though Cannes is a high-profile global launching pad, studio reps often cite the high costs and the risky marketing ploy of trying to woo jet-lagged and often-grumpy media members and critics from around the globe.

Meanwhile, Cannes craves the spotlight Hollywood’s celebs provide, but not always their commercial films. In May, studios are ramping up for their summer blockbusters, which usually aren’t the type of films that Cannes critics embrace.

That explains why “All About Eve” and “Norma Rae” have given way in recent years to “Godzilla” and “Mission to Mars.”

But the revitalized Cannes team (see separate story) is hoping to change that. Without abandoning Cannes’ core contingency of acclaimed international filmmakers, this year’s lineup is expected to feature an artistically stronger sampling of U.S. fare.

“The brilliant thing about a choice like ‘Moulin Rouge’ is that it is an American film about a place that epitomizes French show business. And people say it is excellent,” comments a French movie industry insider.

The pic (made on a budget south of $50 million) seems perfect for Cannes. Though it is a studio’s summer tentpole, its draw doesn’t stem from explosions and aliens. Instead, the film audaciously mixes contempo pop music (Beck, David Bowie, Bono, Fat Boy Slim, etc.) with period drama set in the Parisian nightclub that has become a national institution in France.

As a bonus, it comes from a director whom Cannes discovered nearly 10 years ago with “Strictly Ballroom” — and Cannes loves to celebrate its past heroes — and it features star power in the form of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

For Fox, Cannes is part of a “multistep strategy” to introduce the pic to both international and American auds, Rothman says.

“You can’t simply spring this film on the world,” according to the exec. “You have to build the picture. This is just one step in a carefully planned rollout.”

Fox plans to release the film on May 18 in Los Angeles and New York City, in advance of its June 1 wide launch. It will kick off its international attack on May 24 in Australia; after Asian bows (except Japan), the pic will open in Europe in the fall.

Even with its early marketing and ties to the fest, Fox is taking a risk premiering the movie several weeks before it goes wide in the U.S.

A great showing in Cannes might not have much impact on a pic’s domestic take, while negative or mixed reviews could slow marketing momentum.

Consider “L.A. Confidential.” The film’s screening at Cannes in 1997 did little to build Stateside buzz.

Historically, films in the bookend slots at Cannes have performed poorly. Last year’s “Vatel” and “Stardom” prove the rule.

For many studios, the Riviera isn’t an alluring place to bow a pic.

In 1999, the festival approached Fox to see if Cannes could screen George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” The director and studio politely declined.

Last year, many argued that “Gladiator” should have opened Cannes because of its international makeup: a British director, a star from Down Under, an Italian setting and American financing.

However, Universal, which handled the international distribution, demurred and instead chose to spend big bills on an Italian junket. U claimed it wasn’t averse to Cannes, it was just on a tight release schedule.

“The movie would have been terrific there, but it doesn’t need it,” Nadia Bronson, former prexy of international marketing for Universal Pictures, said at the time. “Our distribution strategy is a lot more important.”

There are, of course, exceptions. In 1982, the fest closed with Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.,” which went on to earn north of $700 million globally.

Last year, Sony Pictures Classics bowed “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” at Cannes and built the buzz at other fests and critics screenings. So far, the pic has grossed more than $170 million internationally and last week won four Oscars.

“Unless you are extremely confident with a picture, you probably don’t want to open Cannes,” says Rothman. “It’s a very public premiere.”

Rothman doesn’t appear intimidated by the challenges of the Cannes opening, or by the unusual move of slating an anachronistic period musical in the middle of the competitive summer season.

He cites the success of “Cast Away” as evidence that auds want to be challenged by “bold and original advances on the form.

” ‘Moulin Rouge’ isn’t full of bombs, guns and explosions,” he says. “But sometimes the song can be mightier than the sword.”

(Cathy Dunkley, Dana Harris and Alison James contributed to this report.)

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