Despite boos, execs find reason to screen

Boos greeted an early screening of “Marie Antoinette.” Laughs were heard during “The Da Vinci Code.” But truncated clips of the upcoming “Dreamgirls,” “World Trade Center” and “Home of the Brave” got upbeat responses.

The message is clear: Screen at your own peril.

Over the next weeks and months, studio execs and producers will wonder if all the expense and headache of taking their most promising fare to Cannes was worth it. What seems evident is that showing partial footage is a safer bet than screening a full-length film.

Sony’s “Da Vinci Code” hauled in a record $224 million on its opening weekend, but the never-ending question will be whether its Cannes presence made any difference. Sony spared little expense, flying some 150 marketing executives to France. While a London-to-Cannes promotional rail journey and the lavish premiere undoubtedly drew more attention to the pic, “Code” was tracking through the roof even before the fest.

But Sony execs were left wondering what exactly they gained from the whole experience. The critical drubbing of “Code” didn’t seem to hurt the box office, nor did complaints from some festgoers over the botched screening and party that sent the studio into spin control. “We’re glad it’s over,” said one exasperated exec.

More than any other recent year, Hollywood used this festival to showcase its most promising projects, from completed tentpoles to samples of in-the-works prestige pics. The idea was to gain an early edge on the ever-important international market and to generate word of mouth.

Sony’s “Marie Antoinette,” released in France by Pathe, did just that, but it wasn’t quite the desired response. French critics jeered at its initial Cannes screening, muffling the smattering of applause, not to mention much talk of the pic’s promising opening on Paris screens.

By the time of its gala premiere, for which no expense was spared on foie gras, Veuve Clicquot Rose and a fireworks display, headlines reporting the boos were running on wire services and newspaper Web sites. Auds were more enthusiastic at the premiere, where the film received applause and a standing ovation. And many said the pink-themed soiree behind the Palais for “Marie Antoinette” was one of the poshest events of the week.

Sony execs say the verdict is still out on what this year’s experience bodes for the future, though odds are that “Spider-Man 3″ will not bow on the Riviera.

Publicly, at least, the studio remained upbeat.

“I think what we got out of coming to Cannes was all the worldwide exposure,” says Sony worldwide marketing honcho Valerie Van Galder. “Back in America, people see ‘The Today Show’ on the Riviera, and there’s a real aura of glamour and old-fashioned showmanship. You put up with some critical flack, but in the end the takeaway is that it was a fantastic, tremendous event.”

As for other Hollywood preems, DreamWorks’ tradition of screening its summer animated release at Cannes didn’t carry the same magic as previous turns. While it certainly didn’t get a negative reaction, the screening of “Over the Hedge” at Cannes didn’t generate the opening-weekend box office of the “Shrek” movies or “Madagascar.” And although Fox came to garner more attention for “X Men: The Last Stand,” it didn’t create much buzz. Fox’s execs quietly admitted they were surprised that they weren’t loudly slammed by the critics.

Hollywood once largely avoided Cannes in the fear that if a film failed, the flop would be heard ’round the world. But Cannes fest director Thierry Fremaux worked hard to woo Hollywood, and judging by the number of studios that set up camp in the Carlton and Majestic hotels, his efforts have paid off.

That may change in the future, at least when it comes to premieres, considering this year’s uneven results.

“It’s a shame,” says one studio exec. “Cannes is a way to get so much exposure in one weekend and accumulate good will in the media. You work for this your whole life, and then the critics make it so awful.”

But the critics’ power is limited. Sony posted record numbers internationally for its day-and-date release of “Da Vinci Code,” a reminder that the fest represents a huge platform for foreign territories. “X-Men: The Last Stand” got off to a strong start in France, where it opened May 24 in advance of its Memorial Day weekend domestic bow.

However, studios did benefit from showing 20- to 30- minute clips of unfinished projects, which denies critics the chance to weigh in because they are not seeing the final result.

“Cannes presents a great opportunity where you have lots of press, lots of exhibition executives, so when you go to market, the press and other people understand the tone and where the audience is,” says Rob Moore, head of worldwide marketing, distribution and operations for Paramount, explaining why the studio brought two previews to the Croisette.

Par and DreamWorks enjoyed an enthusiastic response to the first 20 minutes of “Dreamgirls,” which they screened at the fest in part because the adaptation of a Broadway musical isn’t an obvious overseas sell.

In the 400-seat screening room at the Martinez Hotel, a crowd of journos, international exhibs and even rival studio execs whooped in enthusiasm after each musical number. A scene featuring Eddie Murphy as a James Brown-like talent was so well received that there was some talk he would be an early contender for a supporting actor Oscar. Director Bill Condon was highly visible at the screening and an industry luncheon, and drew praise as a thoughtful representative of the film’s sensibilities.

“It’s always a risk when you go this early,” Moore says. “With ‘Dreamgirls,’ we’re not going anywhere internationally until January 2007 (after a December domestic opening), and if people walked out not liking the footage, that would have been a huge obstacle to get over, especially with a property that is not very well known. Fortunately, our instincts were right and confirmed by people in the room.”

Par got a much different reaction to the screening of 26 minutes of Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” Those who filled the 1,000-seat Debussy theater were respectfully silent, and many said they were moved by Stone’s gentle if disturbing portrait of the early morning hours before planes attacked on Sept. 11.

It’s just what the studio wanted. Rather than an overtly political pic, like many of Stone’s films, “World Trade Center” is a heart-tugging love letter to New York City, focusing on the story of two Port Authority officers who were trapped in, and ultimately rescued from, the Twin Towers.

“When people hear the words ‘World Trade Center,’ there are images that come to mind,” Moore says. “And when they hear ‘Oliver Stone,’ there are images that come to mind in terms of the movies he has made in the past. One thing we wanted to communicate to everyone was that this is a very human story with no politics attached, and that it’s something very different for Oliver.”

MGM’s screening of the first 40 minutes of the Irwin Winkler-helmed “Home of the Brave” received positive feedback, even if it didn’t garner as much attention at other previews, perhaps because of its smaller size and scope. The footage was shown to an audience of mostly journos at the Olympia Theater, and star Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, was lavished with attention at a press conference. International journos lobbed softball questions, such as whether he would ask out Halle Berry at the premiere of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” He laughed and gave a non-answer.

The stress, it seems, was reserved for the major studios.

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