The reel competition

Works in progress court Cannes buyers, press

There are 20 films being screened in the official competition at Cannes. But there’s an unofficial competition among pics being screened in incomplete form. And their numbers are growing.

A 20-minute promo reel from Oliver Stone‘s “World Trade Center” is expected to screen at the 1,000-seat Debussy Theater. Footage from Irwin Winkler‘s “Home of the Brave” will be shown in the Olympia Screening Room.

And a 20-minute segment of Bill Condon‘s “Dreamgirls” will also be screened. Such showcase events have become increasingly popular at Cannes. Distribs regard the fest as a hospitable environment for films that need the careful positioning that a conventional wide release just doesn’t afford.

The trend gathered steam after New Line brought 20 minutes of “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” to the 2001 fest. That screening sparked a word-of-mouth campaign for Peter Jackson‘s trilogy that helped it become a worldwide smash. Miramax Films’ followed with its much-buzzed about big-budget epic “Gangs of New York,” which also went over well.

Sometimes the footage is accompanied by irresistible stunt-photo ops, such as Jack Black diving into the ocean from a giant motorized shark for “Shark’s Tale.”

But Cannes attention comes with no guarantees. Reaction was tepid when Jerry Bruckheimer let distribs in Cannes take a sneak peek at his action epic “Armageddon” in 1998 (but the pic turned out to be a smash).

The following year, Julie Taymor‘s “Titus” footage was met with silence.

Usually, the combo of press and distribs tends to provide a congenial atmosphere for a film by a prominent director that might otherwise be tricky to market. It can also be a tool for damage control.

Last year, when Harvey and Bob Weinstein were in the midst of securing financing for their post-Miramax venture, the duo came to Cannes with 20 minutes (that number again) of Terry Gilliam‘s “The Brothers Grimm.”

Long-gestating pic had been beleaguered by bad buzz, and the Weinsteins wanted to show off that its special f/x were up to snuff.

The pic eked out $105 million — but earned $67 million of that overseas.