Studios find it’s fest of famine

Cannes and H'w'd have enjoyed bumpy journey to the Croisette

When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular.

In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies seem almost de rigueur, and entries in franchises like “The Matrix,” “Star Wars” and “X-Men” regularly play in the Official Selection.

So under Thierry Fremaux’s tenure as artistic director, which began in 2001, Cannes has welcomed back Hollywood, right? And before Fremaux, Cannes was cool to studio popcorn pics, correct?

Well, yes and no.

Though “Moulin Rouge!” got Fremaux’s reign off to a Hollywood-friendly start, insiders note the picture would almost certainly have been selected anyway. Fest prexy Gilles Jacob was proud to have helped launch Baz Luhrmann’s international career by showing “Strictly Ballroom” in Un Certain Regard in 1992, so when Fox international topper Jim Gianopoulos flew to Paris with a print to show the fest honchos, it was virtually a shoo-in. At least for the first two years of Fremaux’s tenure, Jacob was still exerting considerable influence over programming from his new position as fest prexy.

Despite that, it’s true to say that from the beginning, the decidedly unpatrician Fremaux took it upon himself to repair the trans-Atlantic relationship. During the ’90s, Venice and Berlin had increasingly been stealing the limelight as fest platforms for studio fare, and Jacob’s last scouting trip to L.A. had been in 1996. He expected Hollywood to come to him — literally.

Fremaux was younger, willing to travel and already had friends Stateside from his archive job at the Institut Lumiere. It was time Cannes fought back to reclaim the films — and the stars that went with them.

But it wasn’t always like that. The often fractious relationship between the Riviera fest and Hollywood has a long history of cuddling and cooling.

First, the cuddling. When film fests initially took off in Europe after WWII, the big three — Cannes, Berlin and Venice — were basically celebrity events, and America had the movies and stars to make them shine. Postwar Europe needed glamour; Hollywood was happy to oblige as a way to re-assert its power in previously closed territories.

During the first 20 years of Cannes, the U.S. majors had nothing to complain about. Films weren’t selected, they were submitted by each country’s producer org according to a quota system. With up to six features a year in competition, Cannes was a major platform for studio fare. And in noncompeting slots, tentpole productions regularly showed up until the mid-’60s.

During 1960-’66 alone, “Ben-Hur,” “Exodus,” “The Birds,” “Mary Poppins,” “In Harm’s Way” and “Doctor Zhivago” all played the fest in special screenings. In 1964, Cannes opened with the last of the 70mm historical epics, “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

More than anything, it was actually the rise of Hollywood’s own New Wave in the mid- to late ’60s that changed the U.S. majors’ relationship with the fest. This started in 1967 with Francis Ford Coppola’s “You’re a Big Boy Now” — the sole U.S. entry, which attracted hardly any attention — and was cemented in 1969 with “Easy Rider” — which attracted major attention and won a prize for best first film.

Like any self-respecting fest, Cannes simply followed the Wave, platforming pics by Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Schatzberg, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and, later, Woody Allen. The fest’s auteurist bent, which had always been there but not to the exclusion of mainstream cinema, subsequently hardened, particularly with respect to U.S. movies — first under Maurice Bessy, who’d taken over as chief programmer in 1972 and introduced a proper noncompeting sidebar (Les Yeux Fertiles) in 1975, and then with Jacob, who took over in 1978 and renamed the sidebar Un Certain Regard.

By the time Jacob took over, the American New Wave was over and the studio system had reconsolidated: The summer “event picture” was thriving, and popcorn fare was back with a vengeance. In his first year, Jacob famously said that imagination in Hollywood had now become “a sleeping beauty.”

During his 23 years at the helm, Jacob hardly ignored Yank filmmakers: On average, he’d include up to 10 pics in the Official Selection (around half in competition). But for competition, he favored “popular auteurs” like the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood and David Lynch .

Still, Jacob’s noncompeting slots had plenty of studio crowdpleasers over the years. “Hair,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Witness,” “Willow,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Far and Away” and “The Quick and the Dead” were all popcorn pics that either opened or closed the fest during his reign. Most famously, “Basic Instinct” both opened and competed in the fest in 1992.

So the decision to give the same double honors to “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001 was not so much a revolution as it was a kiss-and-make-up with Hollywood execs.

Jacob’s programming had become increasingly sclerotic during the late ’90s, with even his noncompeting popcorn choices looking token (“Godzilla” in 1998, “Mission to Mars” in 2000). Cannes was looking out of touch with the realities of worldwide exhibition, and had been losing ground to Berlin (which then-topper Moritz de Hadeln had turned into an Oscar showcase) and Venice (which had become a de facto fall-release platform).

Though Jacob had programmed Disney toons “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” out of competition in 1990 and 1992, Fremaux is certainly responsible for upping the ante by bringing in “Shrek” as the first CG-animated film at the fest — and in competition as well. He also started traveling several times a year to Hollywood to schmooze studio execs.

The results? “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” noncompeted in 2002; “The Matrix: Reloaded” in 2003; “Bad Santa,” “Troy,” “Kill Bill Vol. 2” and “Shrek 2” in 2004; and “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” last year. Hardly a revolution in historical terms, but definitely a reach-out — and studio execs have responded by also upping their use of Cannes for non-festival pic junkets.

This year, Cannes plays host to Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” (on the same day it starts its worldwide rollout), Universal’s “United 93” (prior to its foreign release), DreamWorks’ animated “Over the Hedge” (simultaneously with the start of its offshore release) and the world preem of Fox’s third “X-Men” installment, “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Tinseltown execs have roundly praised Cannes’ efforts to reach out. They also view Cannes’ moves to re-woo Hollywood five years ago as wise foresight of the huge B.O. contributions foreign markets make on U.S. pics today.

“Thierry’s action was a precursor to the knowledge that the international market could out-gross domestic by double,” says DreamWorks Animation marketing head Terry Press. “It’s very smart that he realized that a film festival is an intersection of commerce and art.”

So far, Fremaux has been able to walk through that intersection fairly well without being labeled a “sell-out” — at least not publicly. However, some eyebrows were raised by Fremaux’s inclusion of “The Ladykillers” in competition in 2004.

The fest chief continues to make around three trips a year to Hollywood.

One pic he screened last fall was Richard Linklater’s arty sci-fi take “A Scanner Darkly,” which later found its way into Cannes’ out-of-competition selections. With the competing “Fast Food Nation,” Linklater is the first helmer in memory to have two movies in the Official Selection.

Stateside, Fox Searchlight will release “Fast Food,” and Warner Independent Pictures will put out “Scanner” this summer. Mark Gill, the Miramax vet who recently stepped down as WIP prexy, says he’s seen far more outreach from Cannes lately.

“They’ve done three things very well: get a nice mix of filmmakers — a few of the old masters but not too many of them — and bring in a remarkable range of subject matter and budgets.”

But despite all of Fremaux’s studio courting, the number of competish pics hailing from Hollywood has not grown significantly under his tenure. With the exception of “Sin City” last year, and “Shrek 2” and “The Ladykillers” in 2004, the fest still tends to push populist Hollywood fare towards galas and other sidebars.

This year, the number of in-competish U.S.-funded productions — along with English-language fare in general — is notably down on last year’s banner five titles. Technically, the only majority U.S.-financed films that made the cut are: Sofia Coppola’s “Marie-Antoinette,” Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel.” (Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation” was actually produced and majority funded by the U.K.’s Recorded Picture Co.)

Of note, Cannes continues to select most of its American fare from the slates of major U.S. distributors. It’s a key reason why most acquisitions execs complain there’s not much to pick up out of the festival, unless the focus is on foreign-language and other arthouse fare.

More Scene

  • TBS 'Full Frontal with Samantha Bee'

    Samantha Bee, Molly Ringwald Discuss #MeToo, Morgan Freeman at 'Full Frontal' FYC

    When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular. In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies […]

  • The Paley Center for Media Presents

    Endemol Shine's Cris Abrego Shares Hope for Bilingual Programming at Paley Center

    When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular. In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies […]

  • 'Adrift' film premiere

    'Adrift' Team Talks Making a 'Female Superhero' on the Open Ocean

    When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular. In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies […]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Why Brian Cox Says Wealthy Family Drama 'Succession' Is Both Timeless and Timely

    When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular. In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies […]

  • Gracie Awards

    Rita Moreno Celebrates Female Empowerment at Gracie Awards: 'It's About Damn Time'

    When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular. In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies […]

  • global women's rights awards

    Nina Shaw, Laura Dern Stress Importance of Intersectionality in Time’s Up Movement

    When the Cannes fest opened in 2001 with Fox’s splashy musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!” — and in competition, too — many saw the move as a bold olive branch to Hollywood, and to bigger movies in particular. In each of the following five years, the fest has been festooned with U.S. tentpoles , animated movies […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content