Cannes stew gets H’wood spice

The studios have again dropped anchor on the Croisette, but will their big-budget efforts yield big gains or hit a Gaul wall?

CANNES — The first time I arrived in Cannes I was feeling very cocky. I had brought along a movie that I knew would be a slam-dunk at the festival. After all, it was about three things that really mattered to festgoers — food, drink and murder.

Well, I had things figured wrong. My movie, called “Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe,” prompted a great deal of eating and revelry, but very little buying. Distributors around Europe liked the movie but weren’t willing to write the big checks.

As the then-youthful president of Lorimar Films, I learned a valuable lesson: Never take anything for granted — especially when it involves festivals or the French.

Arriving here last week, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some of my American colleagues were about to be reminded of that lesson. Never before has Hollywood staked so much in the way of hopes and hard cash on the Cannes Festival.

Study the list of screenings and celebrations and you realize that this year’s fest is as much about “Troy,” “Shrek 2,” “Shark Tale” or “Sahara” as it is about the modestly budgeted foreign-language movies that the Cannes jury will scrutinize.

All this, to be sure, completely contradicts the mandates set forth by major studios in the past.

If you talked to the typical studio chief about bringing an important movie to Cannes, you heard a long list of excuses — the costs were outrageous, the Euro critics were enemies and, besides, Cannes took place at the wrong time of year.

Well, suddenly the studios have decided to do all the things they’d long abjured. They’re bribing all the concierges for good rooms and the maitre d’ for decent tables. The euros are flowing freely to festival and civic bureaucrats to ensure that the lavish parties come off without glitches. There are hundreds of millions at stake and careers on the line.

Make no bones about it: Hollywood has decided to crash France’s arty party. And things may never be the same.

There are several credible reasons for this abrupt change. More and more Hollywood tentpoles are being released day and date around the world as a means of fighting piracy and tightening the marketing focus.

As a result, summer has suddenly become a hot movie season in Europe, and Cannes’ May dates are attractive, not repelling. For a pricey movie like “Troy,” which opens in 46 countries within days of its May 14 U.S. debut, the festival poses a luscious promotional platform.

The global success last year of “Finding Nemo,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Matrix Reloaded” had an important impact on Hollywood strategy. All three summer pictures were hyped to some degree at Cannes.

This year the hype machines have gone into overdrive. DreamWorks has shipped over jetloads of stars like Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz to promote “Shrek 2” — and they’re just voices!

Tom Hanks has never been to Cannes, but he’s been wandering the town awaiting the screening of “The Ladykillers.” Needless to say, Brad Pitt and entourage were very much in evidence for the black-tie unveiling of “Troy.” The hoopla befitted a movie costing anywhere from $165 million to $225 million, depending on whom you choose to believe.

What is the impact of all this revelry?

Clearly the restaurants and hoteliers are exultant; the city has never had it so good. Festival officials, such as the likeable and savvy Thierry Fremaux, are delighted by the stronger Hollywood presence but understandably fearful that the sheer noise level of promotion and self-aggrandizement will drown out the serious artistic business of the event.

The antagonism that existed last year between the French and their Hollywood confreres has begun to melt away. Still, there are many (including many Americans) who want to ensure that Cannes will continue to be about the art of cinema, not just about the art of mass merchandising.

All of which reminded me that, when I was here with “The Great Chefs of Europe,” I was genuinely pleased by the warm wishes of European critics and cinephiles. Back then, you held a screening and threw a modest party — you didn’t need superstars, brass bands and a budget of millions.

All that approbation felt good, but it didn’t help the film’s grosses. By today’s standards we were all dreamers.

Today’s studio strategists believe they have it all figured out. And they may be right this time.

At these prices, they’d better be.

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