Raising the gold bar

Distribs say Cannes' top prize effective marketing tool

HOLLYWOOD — The impact of a major Academy Award on a film’s performance at the box office is well known — an average 10%-20% post-kudo boost — but how does winning the top prize at the world’s most famous film festival affect a pic? What value does Cannes’ Palme d’Or have Stateside? In most cases, other than bragging rights, almost nothing.

Consider the fate of the 1997 Palme d’Or co-winner “Unagi” (“The Eel”). Despite critical raves and the fact that a Japanese master directed it, the pic only managed to generate $418,000 at the U.S. box office via niche distrib New Yorker Films. Helmer Shohei Imamura was not unknown Stateside: His 1989 post-Hiroshima “Black Rain” was a cult fave that also got kudos (but not a Palme) in Cannes. But without a major distrib to give it a big media push, “Eel” died.

“It is a validation of quality,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker of the award. “But, as much as anything else, it’s the quality of the overall reception at Cannes that helps get a U.S. distributor.” This includes great reviews and word of mouth, and if a pic happens to also clinch the Palme d’Or, so much the better. Other than that: “It guarantees nothing,” Barker adds.

While SPC has never distributed a Palme d’Or winner, it has released films that received attention in Cannes. Among them, Pedro Almodovar’s $8.3 million-grossing “All About My Mother,” which won director and jury prizes in Cannes in 1999 and went on to win the foreign-lingo Oscar. And the rapturous reception SPC’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had out of competish in May 2000 started a buzz that carried that film to the U.S. box office record for a foreign-lingo pic ($128 million) , plus four Oscars.

In general, the English-language Palme d’Or recipients that have done well in the U.S. probably would have done so anyway. Miramax, for example, is three-for-three on that count. “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989) grossed $25 million Stateside, “The Piano” (1993) took $41 million domestically and “Pulp Fiction” (1994) scored $108 million. All boasted recognizable stars and indie auteurs (Steven Soderbergh, Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino) that gave marketers a good hook after strong critical response.

“Would ‘Pulp Fiction’ have grossed a $100 million without it winning Cannes? Absolutely,” says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands.

“If you look at the box office over the last couple of years, (Palme d’Or winners) didn’t do a lot of business — on ‘The Son’s Room’ it didn’t make a difference,” Sands adds. “For the specialized audience it may mean something in terms of sampling the movie, but it’s basically about marketing.”

While Italo pic “The Son’s Room” didn’t perform as well as expected, another Miramax foreign-lingo Cannes winner, 1993’s “Farewell My Concubine” (it tied with “The Piano”) had substantial success for a Mandarin-language epic — future “Crouching Tiger” benchmark notwithstanding. “Concubine’s” $5.2 million take was, at the time, a record for a Chinese film in the U.S.

However, as much as “Concubine” was a feather in Miramax’s cap, it had unintended negative ramifications for director Chen Kaige. “I got in a lot of trouble with the Chinese government,” Kaige recalls from his Beijing home. Initially perceived as too critical of the Cultural Revolution, the film was banned. But after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw the film and liked it, government officials released it. (Though in the kind of Byzantine logic understood only by local apparatchiks, show times were published in newspapers but not the title of the film. “People kind of figured it out,” says Kaige.) The film went on to break box-office records in urban China.

For a few distribs who have banked on the prestige of Cannes’ top prize, the Palme has lost some its luster in recent years. One bigwig recently told Variety that he felt the Cannes organizers had missed an opportunity to make the Palme the ultimate arthouse kudo by programming (and awarding) films too esoteric for wider auds to embrace.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s the auds who — bombarded by megabuck studio franchises — are less and less likely to go and see specialty and foreign lingo fare.

“American culture has changed (with respect to foreign films),” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “Twenty years ago young people discovered foreign films when they went to college (and) local art theaters showed the films of Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, and the French New Wave. College film societies educated their audiences. That scene has all but disappeared. You’re more likely to find a showing of ‘Jackass: The Movie’ than ‘Jules and Jim’ on a campus today.”

Meanwhile, some smaller niche distribs have been more than happy with the box office their Palme d’Or acquisitions have yielded. Iranian film “The Taste of Cherries” won the award in 1997 and didn’t find a distrib in the U.S. for five months. Zeitgeist co-prexy Nancy Gerstman won’t reveal the purchase price her company paid for U.S. rights but says the $339,000 U.S. gross went “well beyond” her expectations. “We loved it and we didn’t care what the interest was from an industry standpoint,” she says from her Gotham office.

Still, for many of the studio-based specialty distribs, the best Cannes acquisitions remain outside the competition lineup. Case in point: last year’s German comedy “Mostly Martha,” a respectable niche hit ($4.2 million domestically).

“We don’t buy our foreign language films believing they’re all going to break out,” says Paramount Classics co-topper Ruth Vitale. “But when we bought this film, we were very confident it would find an audience here.”

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