In frugal times, fest premiere value questioned

It’s hard to imagine a more successful opening night of a major film festival than last year’s Venice bow of Joe Wright’s “Atonement.”

The critics raved, the audience cheered, the paparazzi snapped Keira Knightley stepping elegantly on and off boats. Venice established its hip credentials by selecting its youngest-ever first-night helmer, and the film shot out of the blocks as the early front-runner in the Oscar race with so much momentum that it nearly, but not quite, made it to the finish line, picking up a BAFTA for best film along the way.

But was it worth it? As belts are cinched in around Hollywood, that’s the question troubling the studio accountants. It cost Universal $1 million for the privilege of launching “Atonement” at Venice, and the studio was clearly happy enough with the outcome to take “Burn After Reading” there this year. But not everyone is convinced it was worth the money.

Would “Atonement,” or fellow Oscar nominee “Michael Clayton,” which also premiered at Venice last year — or, for that matter, “No Country for Old Men,” which Miramax and Paramount Vantage took to Cannes — really have suffered a lower trajectory, both commercially and in kudos season, if they had been launched more modestly?

After all, Paul Thomas Anderson premiered “There Will Be Blood” at Fantastic Fest in Austin, while “Juno” bowed equally discreetly at Telluride, and both of those films nabbed best picture Oscar noms alongside “Atonement.”

On the other hand, “Juno” made clever use of Europe’s less-expensive fests, traveling to Rome, London, Stockholm, Thessaloniki, Gijon and Rotterdam, raising its profile territory by territory.

There’s nothing the artistic directors of A-list festivals like better than a glossy, classy movie by a big-name auteur, laden with Hollywood stars and bankrolled by a studio willing to pay for a splashy party. But these are frugal times.

With the shuttering or downsizing of Warner Independent, Picturehouse, New Line and Paramount Vantage, the travails of indies such as the Weinstein Co., Sidney Kimmel and David Bergstein’s Capitol/ThinkFilm group, and the drying up of private equity investment, it’s clear that the U.S. majors are no longer so willing to foot the bill for expensive art movies, even if they do win awards.

And that could leave the red carpets of major film festivals looking decidedly threadbare.

Venice is particularly vulnerable because of its exorbitant cost and its date proximity to Toronto and Rome. Aside from Universal, Sony, with “Rachel Getting Married,” is the only other studio on the Lido this year — guaranteeing that Anne Hathaway will be the belle of the ball.

“It’s expensive and a little difficult to manage, but we still think there’s good value for the right film at Venice,” says Sal Ladestro, exec VP of marketing for Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “We took ‘Sleuth’ there last year, and it performed incredibly well in Italy, France and Spain, and I think the Venice launch had a lot to do with that. There’s nothing like a red-carpet event in Venice if you’ve got the right stars, but if you don’t, it can be difficult.”

In fact, Italy was the No. 1 territory for “Sleuth” anywhere in the world — but that’s not saying much. On the other hand, “Atonement” fell flat as a pancake in Italy, such is the mercurial impact of a splashy Venice bow.

As one studio exec confides, “Venice doesn’t even help much to launch our films in Italy, let alone anywhere else.”

Take the latest Keira costumer, “The Duchess,” backed by Pathe and Par Vantage. Pic was widely expected to show up on the Lido, but instead Pathe has opted for a world premiere in London Sept. 3, followed four days later by a North American bow at Toronto and a trip to the Rome fest in October.

According to Pathe topper Francois Ivernel, “Our Italian distributor, BIM, was willing to have the film in Rome over Venice mainly for timing issues (better time to release the film in October in Italy) and secondarily for costs consideration.”

“Venice is ferociously expensive,” says PR maven Jonathan Rutter. “That’s a factor for a lot of distributors and sales companies. Acquisitions people go more to Toronto, where there are more sidebars and product. What you manage to accomplish at Cannes, and to a lesser extent at Venice, is a great junket, but in Venice the hotels are obscenely expensive and not very good, it costs a fortune to rent interview space, and the service is appalling. Then you’ve got the cost of boats, because all the really big stars want to stay at the Cipriani.”

Increasingly, then, pragmatism rather than prestige is the name of the game when distribs figure their festival strategies. It’s no longer about the cachet of getting your film chosen for a Cannes or a Venice, but a cold calculation as to whether the festival works as a cost-effective launchpad for the release.

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