Fight for prime film titles never more intense

In a decade when the global fest circuit is showing signs of imploding under the sheer number of events, the Big Three Euro heavyweights of the film fest circuit — Cannes, Berlin, Venice — aren’t exempt from the pressures to deliver on various levels.

At the center of the whole premieres/red carpet rat race is a (sometimes unseemly) slugfest among the trio of fest toppers that has messages for the whole festival circuit.

Their fest selections are scrutinized by the film critics, who judge by subjective values (i.e., the artistic importance of the films, the emergence of vital new talents). But fest directors also are subject to the verdicts of those who sit in judgment on the business side: Do their top films resonate at the global box office?

In the red corner is Rome-born Marco Mueller, 54, an ethnomusicology-anthropology-orientalism graduate, with some 20 years of fest programming under his belt at Pesaro, Rotterdam and Locarno prior to taking the reins at Venice in 2004.

In the yellow corner is Pforzheim-born Dieter Kosslick, 59, a graduate of communication, politics and education, with a similar length of time spent in Euro film bureaucracy prior to heading up Berlin in 2002.

And in the blue corner is Grenoble-born Thierry Fremaux, at 47 the nipper of the bunch, who studied science prior to becoming director of the Institute Lumiere archive in 1990 and artistic director of Cannes in 2001.

With all three now contractually secure in their jobs until at least 2011, by the end of this decade they will have imprinted their tastes on what reaches foreign-language theatrical circuits as well as shaped what is perceived to be arthouse cinema. If the ’80s and ’90s were influenced by Gilles Jacob at Cannes and Moritz de Hadeln at Berlin, the new millennium could well be dubbed the Fremaux-Kosslick-Mueller Era.

General consensus among insiders is that, on the programming side, Mueller is the smartest and wiliest of the bunch. Following a solid interregnum by former Berlinale boss de Hadeln in 2002-03, Mueller came out of the Venice box in 2004 with a lineup that testified to his long experience and has since stabilized the most unsteady (and most subject to political interference) of Europe’s Big Three.

That same year, Fremaux finally threw off the giant shadow of Jacob and produced his most challenging — and, many would say, still his best — program, consolidating the presence of docus (“Fahrenheit 9/11″), animation (“Shrek 2″) and Asian genre cinema (“Old Boy”) as Competition worthy, as well as fielding a jury headed by uber cinema geek Quentin Tarantino. Cannes let its skirts down, film buffs rejoiced at the Grande Dame’s sea change, but not all of the fest’s power brokers were amused. Since then, Fremaux has trimmed his revolutionary sails to comply more with Cannes’ bourgeois image, though he still lacks a personal signature compared with Kosslick and Mueller.

Also in 2004, Kosslick produced arguably his best balanced Competition after a cautious warm-up period. Since then, he’s shown signs of tempering his innate political correctness and taken more chances, though, as with Fremaux, his relative lack of experience as a programmer and lack of empathy with certain regions (notably Asia) remain his Achilles’ heel compared with the more cosmopolitan Mueller.

All three have remarkably similar records in keeping foreign-language movies high on the Competition menu, with Fremaux averaging the highest percentage (69%, a couple of points higher than Kosslick and Mueller). But it’s Mueller who’s so far registered the biggest swing — from a high 76% in his first year down to a low of 56% last year.

Aside from the critical impact of the films at these fests, the B.O. numbers also skew the accepted hierarchy when looked at closely.

Fremaux’s banner year was 2006, with a boffo $85.3 million in U.S. revenues from his foreign-language Competition fare. But of the eight titles released Stateside, three movies (“Babel,” which was partly in English, “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Volver”) accounted for 98% of the total. Similarly, in 2004, almost three-quarters of the $22.8 million total was earned by one title, “The Motorcycle Dairies,” which actually world premiered at Sundance, not Cannes.

“Motorcycle,” released Stateside that fall, certainly drew added traction from its Cannes showcase, as did two other Fremaux successes, “Swimming Pool” ($10.1 million) and “Cache” ($3.6 million). So, too, Kosslick can claim some credit for hits such as “Hero” (a stupendous $53.7 million) and “Letters From Iwo Jima” ($28.3 million), though the former was already red-hot in Asia and “Iwo Jima” sailed under Clint Eastwood’s imprimatur.

However, take out such exceptions from the totals and the average annual figure for each fest topper (during the years they presided over their fests’ selections) is much more modest — and surprising. Kosslick comes in top of the pile with an annual average of $6 million in Stateside B.O., followed by Mueller ($4.4 million) and then Fremaux ($3.6 million).

Each, too, has had an annus miserabilis when their Competition choices failed to ring the Stateside B.O. bell: Four titles from Mueller’s 2005 lineup scraped up a total of only $1.5 million, five acquisitions from Kosslick’s 2006 menu garnered a paltry $318,000 in the U.S., while seven pics from Fremaux’s first selection managed the best of the worst, tallying $4.2 million.

As the battle for premieres becomes fiercer by the year, Europe’s three fest supremos can’t afford to rest on their few laurels in claiming to rep the tastes of up-market moviegoers.

And when it comes to Cannes, the biggest irony of all lies with longtime fest topper Jacob, regularly castigated in his later years for his die-hard auteurism. Though he enjoyed none of Fremaux’s socko Stateside hits, in his final seven years, Jacob scored an annual exception-free average far in excess of his successor’s seven years to date: $5.6 million — and that’s in unadjusted, ’90s dollars.

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