Studios roll dice on festival premieres

Blockbuster bets on '300,' 'Da Vinci' have paid off

Over the Cannes Fest’s first two decades, Hollywood studio chiefs balanced their fears of hordes of foreign critics maligning their lavish musicals, star-driven dramas and brawny epics with their natural desires for overseas coin. Their worries about expensive and risky global launches were later taken from their hands as Cannes cooled to mainstream studio fare in the late 1960s and early ’70s, essentially echoing the American New Wave in its U.S. selections. Gradually, populist studio fare returned, but it wasn’t until the current century that the fest truly rekindled its Hollywood love affair and returned to service as studio pic launch pad.

These days, though, studios have new reasons to be cautious as well as confident.

An Official Competition slot still means a slew of expenses, plus a better-than-average chance of being savaged by the press. But the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has never seemed so apt.

Few films in Cannes history have been so critically reviled as last year’s opener, Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Likewise with Fox’s “X-Men 3,” 2006’s other big studio entry.

But the truth is, for tentpoles such as these, the critical reception in Cannes doesn’t matter: Box office for the Tom Hanks starrer based on the mega-bestselling book wasn’t harmed one bit by the barbs hurled in its direction. It grossed a massive $758 million worldwide. Fox’s comicbook franchise took $459 million globally.

In past years, George Lucas’ “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” both bowed on the Croisette to largely hostile press, yet went on to gross $649 million and $848 million respectively for Fox. “Troy,” Wolfgang Petersen’s big-budget sword-‘n’-sandal pic, opened in Cannes in 2004 amid a blaze of publicity. Critics might have sneered, but the film wound up pulling in a whopping $497 million for Warner Bros.

Similarly, at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, “300” may have gotten the critical brush-off, but the pic went on to become the year’s biggest opener with its $70 million bow and is headed toward half a billion worldwide.

Yet at Cannes this year, pickings look distinctly slim on the blockbuster front, with only Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Thirteen” (hardly a traditional tentpole title) flying the flag for big-budget, A-list studio fare. And “Zodiac,” the only other big-budget studio entry, already opened Stateside.

Perhaps last year’s critical lashings — regardless of box office — are still burning in studio execs’ backs?

“The fact is, movies go to festivals for many different reasons,” declares Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek. “And one of the main purposes of Cannes is simply to announce that a massive blockbuster is about to descend on the world. Those films aren’t there for critics, because those releases aren’t chiefly review-driven. So being at the festival is purely about publicity and profile.

“The studios will only entrust the festival with films which they know will be undamaged by a poor critical response,” Battsek adds. “If they wind up with bad reviews, they shrug them off. But if they do get critical support, then it can certainly take the film to another level. Even a blockbuster can benefit from good press. So for some films — especially those big summer titles — it’s very much a win-win game.”

It’s a lesson the British expat admits he learned the hard way: “When I was at Buena Vista, we screened 20 minutes of ‘Armageddon’ at Cannes as a sort of sneak preview — and we thought we’d reached Armageddon ourselves. The screening went badly, none of the press had anything good to say about the film, and for a while we definitely thought we’d shot ourselves in both feet. But as it turned out, the film was unharmed. We wound up opening very strongly, both domestically and internationally. (It grossed $555 million worldwide.) Which just goes to show: At Cannes, for that kind of movie, all publicity is good publicity.”

For an artier pic that relies largely on reviews, however, this fest premiere formula works quite differently.

Last year saw Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” preem to a mixed reaction from critics, leading to a spiky press conference and vows from the Coppola clan to never return. But did “Marie Antoinette’s” subsequent middling B.O. ($61 million globally) have anything to do with its frosty reception in the Palais?

For the more artier films, says Tom Bernard, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics, Cannes is one of the toughest tests. “It’s at Cannes that a lot of films have the first words written about them, and the effect is tremendous. Other critics react to what they read coming out of there. Newspapers editors react. Exhibitors react.”

Charles McDonald, CEO of London’s Premier PR and a 25-year Cannes vet, adds, “The main thing to remember is that Cannes is a news-generated event — far more so than any other film festival. Newspaper editors are simply looking for a newsworthy, sensational angle. So a film getting booed, or anything they can sell as a scandal, is bound to get a lot of attention.

“With ‘Marie Antoinette,’ the truth of the matter is, about six people actually booed that film. I was there. But the legend is out now that it was howled off the screen, and you simply can’t get past that. It’s tarred with that brush, and that’s that.”

Yet ironically, a lack of controversy can be no less damaging: “Unless your film happens to be one of the six or seven Competition titles that people actually wind up talking about, Cannes can be a pretty lonely experience,” McDonald says.

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