Cannes: How to Handle a Festival Bomb
What do sales companies do when their title gets treated to that most traditional of festival put-downs: the boo.
"When you come to Cannes, you're prepared," says Olivier Assayas, addressing the smattering of boos that followed Monday's press screening of his latest film, Personal Shopper. "You're prepared for anything."
His Kristen Stewart-starring ghost story may have been the only competition title so far this festival to have been greeted with that most European of critical put-downs, but it hardly ranks among the great Cannes maulings.
Last year, it was Sea of Trees that sparked the reviewers' wrath, while 2014 gave us arguably the most famous contemporary turkey, curtain-raiser Grace of Monaco, the loud jeers after which are no doubt still echoing around the Palais.
But while critics compete for the most creative, comedic put-down ("A film so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk," read one of Grace's more tweeted reviews), with the booths of the Marche du Film practically in earshot of the grand auditorium, how do sales companies react when they suddenly find themselves handling a Cannes bomb?
Fortunately for Bloom, which was first launched at Cannes 2014, Sea of Trees — among its most high-profile initial titles — had sold out internationally before it screened in the main competition the following year and was picked up by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate for the U.S. just days before its world premiere.
It was a similar story for Grace of Monaco, with Lotus Entertainment's sales largely unaffected thanks to previous markets. But that didn't mean the job was over for the company, especially with the film's U.S. distributor famously distancing itself from the film and backing away from a theatrical release.
"There was frustration and expectations, along with [The Weinstein Co.] then deciding because of the bad reviews to make it a Lifetime movie, that we just had to calm buyers down," explains Sarah Gabriel, Lotus' senior vp international sales. Among the soothing initiatives arranged was an international junket held during the festival, giving buyers the chance to kick off publicity for the film in their territories.
"Producers Gaumont delivered an international campaign that allowed each territory to work on their marketing campaign without having to rely on The Weinstein Co.," Gabriel says, adding that for those buyers rocked by the savage reviews, this "calmed them a little."
Sometimes, however, a more drastic response is required. Michel Hazanavicius went back to the editing room after The Search, his far less tap-dancey follow-up to Oscar winner The Artist, met with yawns at Cannes in 2014, shaving 17 minutes off and taking the new cut to Toronto four months later as it still searched for a U.S. buyer.
In 2003, Vincent Gallo famously sliced 26 minutes from The Brown Bunny (but not the notorious final scene with Chloe Sevigny) after Roger Ebert declared it to be the "worst film in the history of Cannes," also using Toronto to unleash his shorter offering. Neither film, however, enjoyed even remotely the success each director might have hoped for.
There are, of course, several examples of films that were roundly booed in Cannes only to go on to become major hits. Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, The Da Vinci Code and Inglourious Basterds were all subjected to boos (Pulp Fiction mostly for winning the Palme d'Or over Three Colors: Red), each escaping unscathed from a beating by critics largely considered to be the most critical in the business.
"When we think about Cannes, we have to remind ourselves that it's an industry-only film event — except for the beach screenings," says Martin Marquet, a longtime publicity advisor to the Wild Bunch group of sales agents. "None of the official selection can be shared with the public, which means the films that have a debut on the Croisette are exposed to various forms of professional criticism but don't benefit from the public's perspective and general reaction."
But while the reaction to Taxi Driver in 1976 may have been largely constrained to the Palais and surrounding hotel bars, in an age where damning tweets can reverberate around the world in the time it takes to say "shit sandwich," it's a different story.
Marquet admits that a "significant negative reaction" can definitely make it harder to promote and sell a film.
"But it certainly does not mean that the film has no life in front of the public or other film professionals who weren't in the theater that day," he says, adding he would look to send the film to a more audience-driven festival and market where they could prove people wrong. "I always remind filmmakers that their festival debut is just the debut. Nothing is ever fatal, really."
Unlike its suicidal characters, the fate of Sea of Trees a year on from "boo-gate" remains murky, with U.S. and U.K. release dates still unconfirmed (although it opened in France on April 27).
Which film becomes 2016's prime jeer-jerker is still to be determined. But there will be one. And it will be followed by a decidedly awkward press conference, in which the journalists will carefully tiptoe around the subject before diving like vultures on a lifeless corpse.
As one sales agent says: "That's the risk you take when you expose your film to the world's harshest critics."