It's all the timing for pics' global launch

When Cannes put 20th Century Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” on its dancecard as an opening night pic in 2001, the move — engineered by then-new artistic director Thierry Fremaux — was a sign that the venerable fest was letting its hair down.

With the news that Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” will bow at a Cannes gala this year, it seems as if the fest is now putting on a ballcap and heading to the mall.

Summer fests, from Cannes (May 17-28) to burgeoning Tribeca (April 25-May 7) — which this year will play host to Paramount’s latest “Mission: Impossible” and Warner Bros.’ “Poseidon” — are becoming increasingly tentpole-friendly.

Years ago, the majors mostly stayed clear of Cannes (except for one obligatory Hollywood opening pic), fearing hostile critics and arty audiences.

“Rouge” was a studio pic, but it was also an ambitious gamble from helmer Baz Luhrmann, whose career had been launched along the Croisette with “Strictly Ballroom,” and “Rouge” preemed in competition.

Since then, Cannes has played host to sequels from the “Matrix,” “Star Wars” and “Shrek” franchises, with most big Hollywood pics playing out of competition.

So why over the past five years have such seemingly arty film fests embraced overt popcorn pics? And why are studios suddenly happy to show mainstream films — aimed at middlebrow multiplex auds — to viewers who relish knowing the differences between Yimou Zhang, Ziyi Zhang and Yang Zhang?

The reason is that major studios are stealing pages straight from indie playbooks and recognizing the value of major fests in positioning worldwide releases.

“It’s all about their release dates,” says one high-ranking studio exec of the ever-growing trend. “The majors have figured out what the indies already knew: That a festival can provide a fast and very comprehensive platform for an international release. While it’s expensive, you can get a massive amount of publicity out of a few days in one city.”

Indeed, “X-Men” rolls out day-at-date at the end of May, while “Mission” and “Poseidon” also have May dates.

“The main thing is that you want the focus and attention of Cannes, which has worldwide appeal,” says former Fox chief Bill Mechanic, who heads Pandemonium Prods. “The only question is, ‘Is your movie good enough?’ You don’t show a movie unless you’re really sure.”

Besides “X-Men,” studio fare heading to France will include Ron Howard’s Sony pic “The Da Vinci Code,” Working Title and Universal’s “United 93″ and DreamWorks’ CG animated “Over the Hedge.”

Reflecting the value of a Cannes slot for a studio pic, U’s financially disappointing Howard pic “Cinderella Man” last year had a shot at closing Cannes. But execs at Imagine decided to pass, and in hindsight the move might have been a mistake: Pic only punched out $46 million overseas. Howard’s now back a year later with “Da Vinci.”

Studios also have been rolling promo footage at Cannes for the international press corps. This year, Paramount is bringing footage of Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” following the preview tradition of New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings,” DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale” and Miramax’s “Gangs of New York.”

Another reason upmarket fests are embracing tentpoles is that there isn’t enough strong arthouse material to justify their ballooning sizes. Loaded with serious pics, even discerning audiences get bored of arthouse fare.

While Cannes is seen as being increasingly friendly towards Hollywood — “It’s friendly, but not a lapdog,” cautions one exec — Tribeca, co-founded by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, is really rolling out the welcome mat.

After opening with the 9/11 pic “United,” Tribeca, which was founded to rebuild Lower Manhattan after the attacks on the Twin Towers, will play host to “Poseidon,” a pic that shows disaster for entertainment’s sake, and “Mission: Impossible III.”

For the tentpole players, getting a cast of talent to show in Cannes or Tribeca is easier than trying to move them to more regional locales, where usually one star or just the helmer will show.

But the equation works best for studios when a pic will open just after its fest premiere and the studio feels it has a film that will not get pummeled by the press.

Studios also have to pick and choose wisely. For example, Venice and Toronto have emerged as places where Oscar jockeying begins for studios and indies alike.

“Each festival has a different tone and feel to it,” says Warner Bros. Pictures prexy of domestic marketing Dawn Taubin. “And you have to evaluate the timing. A festival is another arena to bring attention and PR to your movie. And Tribeca is a more commercial festival that, say, the New York Film Festival. But it all depends on the nature of the movie and how it relates to each fest.”

Coming right before Cannes, Tribeca may even emerge as a place that steals such pics from the French fest. Power players De Niro and Rosenthal certainly have a place in Hollywood firmament that none of their counterparts at other festivals do.

But the balancing of indie and studio fare needs to be handled delicately. This year’s Tribeca has some indie insiders scratching their heads, and wondering what the fest’s identity is as its screens 169 features overall — many by first-time helmers — along with the popcorn pics.

“They have ‘Mission: Impossible,’ but then a lot of the indie films are poorly attended,” grouses one studio subsid exec. “It’s not like the New York Film Festival, where you know you’ll see a film by some obscure but important filmmaker.”

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