Festival brouhaha can be fleeting

Caught up in the splendor and insular fishbowl of the fest circuit, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype.

But the rarefied air of Cannes, Sundance and Venice is a world away from the plexes. Leaving behind the heady vibe of the French Riviera, the snowy mountains of Utah and the romantic canals of Venice, many films quickly lose their luster.

Heading into Sundance this year, Brett Morgen‘s docu “Chicago 10,” was high on many attendees’ radar. The pic opened the fest, but by the next day its buzz was all but dead.

There was no end to the headlines coming out of Sundance regarding “Hounddog,” in which Dakota Fanning plays a young girl who is raped. The controversy surrounding the film would have seemed to guarantee a pickup, if not by a studio specialty arm then by one of the spunky indie distribs.

Problem is, the film wasn’t very good. Reviewers and buyers alike regarded it as a flop. So not only did “Hounddog” leave Sundance without a distrib, it still doesn’t have one.

But buyers can’t always sort the fest wheat from the chaff. Plenty of Sundance pics have landed pricey distribution deals, only to underwhelm at the box office.

Paramount Classics, for example, paid a fest record $9 million for rights to “Hustle & Flow” in 2005; the film took in $22 million at the box office.

A year later, Warner Independent Pictures paid $6 million for U.S. and U.K. distrib rights to Michel Gondry‘s “The Science of Sleep.” On paper, it sounded good–a much-touted auteur, a hunky lead in Gael Garcia Bernal. On the bigscreen, the film took in just $4.6 million domestically.

In 1999, Bob and Harvey Weinstein‘s Miramax plunked down a reported $10 million for Steve Zahn starrer “Happy, Texas.” Pic never crossed the $2 million mark at the box office.

The lesson for producers and distribs: Aim to keep expectations in check.

At Cannes, a pic can generate buzz and even win jury prizes, only to lose their sizzle somewhere over the Atlantic on their way to the U.S. Fest fever, especially in Cannes, often doesn’t translate to U.S. auds. It took almost a year for last year’s Palm D’or winner, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” to reach U.S. auds. The pic took in a paltry $1.4 million Stateside. The 1999 Golden Palm winner “Rosetta” grossed just $267,000 in the U.S., and 2005 winner “L’Enfant” tallied $465,000 in its U.S. release.

Conversely, some of the least buzzed-about films are the ones that turn into gold at the box office.

“March of the Penguins” played Sundance in 2005. Most buyers left before the screening ended. Only Warner Independent and National Geographic saw the pic’s potential and partnered to land domestic distrib rights. The pic took in more than $77 million in its U.S. release.

Fests are still the preferred playground when it comes to publicity stunts, though, and they can certainly help whip up excitement.

Last year, Sacha Baron Cohen strolled the Croisette in a thong plugging “Borat.” Last week, Jerry Seinfeld borrowed a page from the same book, gliding down from the top of the Carlton Hotel in a bee suit to promote “Bee Movie,” which opens Nov. 2.

On the fest circuit, there’s also that old promotional standby: announcing that a famous star or filmmaker is attached to a project, regardless of how far along the deal is. That primarily happens at markets such as Cannes or AFM.

Last week, backers of a film about the Bronte sisters put out word that Michelle Williams has joined the cast. But when that news was being disseminated, Williams had only had one meeting, and there was no deal in place.

C’est la vie.

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