Cannes becomes H'wood's global launching pad

Passez le popcorn.

Brad Pitt, star of Warner Bros.’ sword-and-sandal spectacular “Troy,” is coming to the Palais on May 13 for an official Cannes Film Festival screening, just days before the film is shipped to multiplex theaters in France and the rest of the world.

“Troy” is not the first American blockbuster to premiere in Cannes. But it’s the first to do so in the heat of an international day-and-date campaign aiming to reach 80% of the global market on the same opening weekend. The “Troy” campaign is part of sea change in the film business that’s being felt from Hollywood to Cannes and beyond: summer is now the hot season for movies, even outside the U.S.

Coming to the Palais two days after “Troy” is “Shrek 2,” a film in the official competition at Cannes. The black-tie event marks the start of a day-and-date campaign for “Shrek 2″ blanketing multiple markets in the first week of release.

DreamWorks is also using the event as an international showcase for its next animated feature, “Shark Tale,” out in October. The studio is planning to screen footage of “Shark” in Cannes on May 14 and is flying more than a hundred people to the fest, including actors who voice lead roles in the two toons: Jack Black, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz.

The Warners and DreamWorks hoopla reflects a tectonic shift in Hollywood’s relationship with Cannes and with the overseas market.

In past years, Cannes served as a uniquely glamorous place to launch a film overseas. But the timing was extremely risky. International release dates were staggered across several months, usually in the fall. Bad reviews in Cannes, refracted through the lens of the foreign press corps, could result in a storm of transcontinental negative buzz, killing a film’s B.O. prospects overseas.

“L.A. Confidential” was highly esteemed by U.S. critics. But it was received tepidly in Cannes, and suffered a weak trajectory abroad and a final overseas gross of just $62 million.

But those days are ending.

This is the era of “The Matrix: Revolutions,” a film whose “zero hour” release strategy achieved instant global saturation: 20,000 prints in dozens of markets at the same moment in time.

The day-and-date strategy for “The Matrix: Revolutions” was a hedge against international piracy — a rising concern that will be the subject of numerous symposia at Cannes this year. But the strategy also helped insulate “Revolutions” from a rash of intensely negative reviews.

Protecting Hollywood tentpoles from bad press is particularly important at a time of massive budget inflation.

At an investment conference last week in Los Angeles, News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin said three or four movies set for release in the next few months will each have production and marketing costs that combined add up to $300 million.

Chernin warned that Hollywood could be entering an era of $200 million writedowns. “It will rock the industry to its foundations,” he said.

But even as tentpole costs are skyrocketing, overseas box office is helping to fill the gap. Foreign box office rose 5% to $10.58 billion last year. That increase was driven by record grosses for summer pics like “Finding Nemo,” “The Matrix: Reloaded,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “T3.”

All four of those pics were promoted at Cannes. “Nemo” and “Pirates” were advertised in huge banners along the Croisette. There was a black-tie screening and party for the “Matrix,” while “T3″ had multiple parties, a press junket, and a traffic-stopping PR stunt in front of the Carlton Hotel.

The summer blockbuster season once seemed to be a uniquely American phenom. Long summer vacations in Europe and a preponderance of theaters without air conditioning meant that B.O. in key Euro markets evaporated at precisely the time of year in which Hollywood released its biggest blockbusters Stateside.

But Hollywood’s day-and-date mandate is reshaping the international release calendar. Not all films open day-and-date. But those that do depend on the sort of instantaneous global exposure that an event like Cannes affords.

For “Troy” and “Shrek 2,” the Cannes premiere is one spoke in a tightly coordinated global campaign. “Troy” opens May 14 in the U.S. and within days 8,000 prints will be shipped to 46 overseas markets.

” ‘Troy’ is the perfect movie for Cannes,” says Warner Bros. international marketing prexy Sue Kroll. “It’s like an old Hollywood film. It has great sets and great production values, literary subject-matter, wonderful movie stars and character actors from all over the world.”

It’s also the perfect movie for Cannes because, serendipitously or not, the date of the fest and of opening weekend are perfectly aligned.

As Hollywood plants more tentpoles in the summer corridor, local conditions are also becoming more hospitable. European vacations are shrinking and international circuits are building multiplex theaters with all the amenities of U.S. moviehouses.

Day-and-date distribution became a widespread practice in the mid-1990s, says Buena Vista Intl. prexy Mark Zoradi. It’s more common for sequels than original films, he says. “Pirates of the Caribbean” wasn’t released day-and-date; “Pirates 2,” which the studio hopes soon to begin shooting.

“Each year, as multiplexes get more penetrated into the market, it becomes easier to do,” Zoradi says. “The only main country in Europe where it’s still a problem is Italy.”

It’s an open question, however, just how hospitable the Cannes fest will be to these shifts.

The competition for the Palme D’Or is jammed with U.S. talent. The Coen brothers comedy “The Ladykillers” and “Shrek 2″ are squaring off against more traditional auteurs like Olivier Assayas and Wong Kar-Wai.

Tom Hanks, who has never been to Cannes, will attend the “Ladykillers” screening, which will serve as the launching pad for the pic’s international release in May and June.

There’s also a midnight screening of “Dawn of the Dead” scheduled at the Palais for May 15. There are tentative plans for a mid-production junket for “Sahara,” a Paramount pic that Anschutz Film is now shooting in Europe.

And the chair of the jury is Quentin Tarantino, an American director who prepared for jury duty at Cannes last month with a guest stint next to Simon Cowell on the jury of “American Idol.”

Cannes is a carnivalesque media bazaar where American pop stars tend to share equal billing with esoteric cineastes, super-rich producers and foreign luminaries of every stripe.

“The smallest, most impoverished producer and the most powerful studio execs might have adjoining tables at the Carlton,” says UIP chairman Stewart Till.

But the Hollywood ballyhoo promises to be extra loud this year.

“There’s not a hotel you can get on opening weekend,” says Dennis Davidson, whose PR shingle, DDA, is organizing lavish film launch events and booking hotel rooms. “Every single beach is sponsored. You can’t walk a block without being attacked by sponsors.”

All this Hollywood hype reflects the diplomatic efforts of artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who has said he wants the fest to reflect the full range of international cinema — blockbusters included.

“There’s a chance this year that Cannes could be all things to all people,” UIP’s Till says. “It could be a platform for two huge summer blockbusters. It could also help European films be successfully marketed on a worldwide basis.”

One of the first animated blockbusters launched at Cannes was Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which screened there in 1992. But that was a different era.

“Beauty and the Beast” had opened months earlier in the U.S. The Cannes “Beauty and the Beast” launch was for the international business — an after-market that was then just an afterthought.

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