Cannes’ arty ’08 films got cool reception

Major studios steer clear of specialty fare

The domestic B.O. grosses for films acquired at last year’s Cannes Film Festival demonstrate what happens when fest offerings are more arthouse than not.

Only two titles cumed north of $3 million: France’s Oscar foreign-language nominee “The Class” ($3.6 million, still in release) and Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” ($3.1 million).

Despite some star power (Gwyneth Paltrow) and some highly visible but strange publicity surrounding co-star Joaquin Phoenix right before the film’s release, “Two Lovers” was perhaps too arty to do more major business beyond its $2.9 million gross.

Nabbing a foreign-language Oscar nomination boosted the profile of animated Israeli pic “Waltz With Bashir.” Italian mob drama “Gomorrah” enjoyed some buzz but no Oscar nom.

“Two Lovers,” among a handful of available U.S. titles unspooling in the 2008 Cannes competition — “Synecdoche” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” included — was certainly high profile enough on paper but met with lukewarm responses. “Che” only found a buyer (IFC) months later.

Along with Sony Classics, IFC was one of the busiest buyers at Cannes last year. The distrib, which also does day-and-date VOD releasing, has seen a strong start for Brit Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” Film has posted good per-location averages since opening in early March.

Sony Classics’ “Tyson,” from director James Toback, scored a per-location average of $7,817.

There’s nothing wrong with smaller grosses, but it’s getting harder and harder to justify arthouse acquisitions, particularly for the studio specialty labels such as Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and Miramax. For the most part, they left Cannes empty-handed last year.

Sony Classics and IFC are more nimble and able to pick up smaller or foreign-language fare that may catch fire during awards season but, in these tentpole times, might not spark big time at the box office.

Whether it’s the smaller labels or studio arms that dominate this year’s fest will depend on if the Croisette offers films with broader appeal, such as “We Own the Night,” which cumed north of $28 million after Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group acquired the pic out of the Cannes lineup in 2007.