Lucas, Spielberg aim to avoid 'Da Vinci' scenario

On Sunday, Indiana Jones faces a challenge more terrifying and dangerous than anything he’s encountered onscreen: the Cannes crowd.

The jet-lagged, overtired, cynical mob of critics and executives decimated “The Da Vinci Code” when it debuted here two years ago, with festgoers giving terrible reviews to the film — and even to Sony’s expensive after-party.

Since then, no Hollywood film of that magnitude has screened for the fest crowd. Like “The Da Vinci Code” before it, Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is the most anticipated audience movie of the summer — and perhaps the year. Advance audience tracking is through the roof.

But Paramount, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have made some changes in their game plan to avoid the “Da Vinci” scenario. For one thing, they’re not having a big party.

This year, Miramax scheduled a traditional Cannes bash for opening-night attraction “Blindness,” and DreamWorks Animation invited 1,000 people to a fete after Thursday’s “Kung Fu Panda.” Other pics will similarly use the press-junket atmosphere to draw festgoers.

In contrast, “Indy’s” producers have skedded a “filmmakers party” for 250 people — no press invited. There will be the usual press conference following the screening; the only TV and print junket interviews with the cast are scheduled the day before the screening, instead of afterward; access to Spielberg outside the press conference is strictly interdit.

With all the perils and with the film guaranteed a huge opening, why is Indiana Jones entering the Kingdom of the Critical Knives?

In theory, everybody wins. Cannes gets a Major Event, and “Indy” gets even more worldwide attention (the film has received significantly more ink than anything else in the lineup).

And Spielberg and Lucas can remind the world that they’re not just movie guys but Serious Makers of Cinema as they return to Cannes, the place that helped deify Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni and even their compatriot Coppola. There is nothing to risk but bruised egos.

Like “The Da Vinci Code,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is not a film aimed for critics. Negative reviews can’t hurt. (“Da Vinci Code” eventually grossed $758 million worldwide.)

But after “The Da Vinci Code,” “Crystal Skull” proves exhibit B in the ongoing battle over whether critics matter. The Cannes screenings are for industry professionals, whose opinions theoretically carry weight. (The Everyman bloggers will get their say when the film opens worldwide May 22.)

But the lines are blurring, as critics have adopted the blogger mantra that speed matters. The idea of waiting a week or longer for a critical assessment is long gone.

As usual with Cannes, “The Da Vinci Code” screened to the press a few hours ahead of its evening bow. Word spread quickly on the Croisette of sniggers from the jaded critics, and scathing reviews were posted on the Web quickly. By the time “Da Vinci” had its 7:30 p.m. screening, the verdict was in. Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Tom Hanks, et al., climbed the red carpet of the Palais, waving to the crowd and trying not to look shell-shocked.

The critics’ words on “Indy” are similarly likely to precede its evening bow, but “Indy” has one major advantage over “Da Vinci”: The backlash started before its preem.

“The Da Vinci Code,” which preemed in the high-profile opening-night slot, was kept tightly under wraps until its afternoon screening for the press. But “Indy’s” secrecy was blown last week, when Par held a few exhibitor screenings and the Internet started spreading the word that “Indy” was windy.

So by the time the adventure preems Sunday, there may be a backlash to the backlash, and Cannes’ high-minded critics may defend it — or simply take it at face value.

For decades, Hollywood avoided Cannes, knowing that it was a mega-expensive launching pad that offered the possibility of global acclaim — or global jeers. When Fox brought “Moulin Rouge” here as the opening-night film, it was a brave move that broke Hollywood’s long Cannes-phobia. The gamble paid off, but since then, Hollywood’s offerings have been more specialty than blockbuster: “Mystic River,” “No Country for Old Men,” etc.

Aside from being a film festival and a global market, Cannes has become the world’s biggest press junket, with studios using it to tout projects to the assembled press. Sometimes it works, as when New Line unveiled 20 minutes of the first “Lord of the Rings” pic. But when the reception is negative, it leaves a bad taste. Many filmmakers, after having been burned, have vowed never to expose themselves and their work at a forum as open as Cannes.

(Anne Thompson in Cannes contributed to this report.)

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