Cannes' victors don't necessarily win in U.S.

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CANNES -- "But will it translate in the states?" That's the lingering question as the 60th Festival de Cannes draws to a close -- awards will be handed out Sunday night as the fest brings down the curtain with its closing-night film, Denys Arcand's "Days of Darkness." For what excites the cineastes along the Croisette doesn't always lead to a successful commercial run in the U.S.

Last year's Palm d'Or winner, Ken Loach's Irish civil war drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," took in only $1.5 million when it was released earlier this year by IFC Films, which also offered the movie as one of its First Take VOD titles. On the other hand, a successful Cannes bow can raise a movie's profile. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" picked up three prizes at last year's Cannes, including a best director nod. It went on to score seven Oscar noms and one win, grossing $132.6 million worldwide, $34.3 million of which came from the U.S., where the film was released by Paramount Vantage.

This year, Sony's Columbia Pictures is betting that James Gray's "We Own the Night," a family drama/crime thriller combination platter starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall, has the elements of a commercial hit and possible awards contender. Although the film is not having its world premiere at the fest until todayFriday, it screened for buyers last week. Sony execs had a special screening of their own May 18 in Los Angeles, and Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal immediately authorized Peter Schlessel, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisition Group president, to go after North American rights, which ultimately went for $11.5 million plus a $25 million P&A commitment. "It fits in line with our strategy to acquire films that will provide quality projects to Sony's slate," Schlessel says.

When the prizes are handed out Sunday night, the betting is that filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, even if they don't cop the Palm d'Or, will receive some recognition for their new film, "No Country for Old Men," a tense, laconic adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy. The film, which revolves around stolen loot and pits Josh Brolin against an implacable killer (Javier Bardem) and a philosophic lawman (Tommy Lee Jones), probably will frustrate general audiences. Although it builds to a violent crescendo by midfilm, it then strikes out in unpredictable directions. But it has established itself as a critical fave, which should allow Miramax Films -- which co-produced with Paramount Vantage and which is distributing in the U.S. -- to launch a serious awards-season campaign on its behalf.

Miramax also sees awards potential in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a true-life story about French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a debilitating stroke but re-learned to communicate by the blink of an eye. The wrenching film generated a lot of interest, but it was Miramax president Daniel Battsek who ultimately paid about $3 million for North American rights.

The French-language film also should have definite awards potential. Observers were divided, though, over how large an audience it might find in the States, pointing to the performance of the thematically similar "The Sea Inside," the story of a quadriplegic who sought the right to die. Released by Fine Line in 2004, that Oscar-nominated film grossed just $2.1 million domestically. But Battsek sees an update distinction, saying, "That film is about a man who wanted to die. This film is about a man who wanted to live."

Screening Out of Competition, Michael Moore's new documentary, "Sicko," about the ills of the U.S. health-care industry, won't be winning any prizes. But the surprisingly heartfelt film -- in this one, Moore offers more lament than confrontation -- received plenty of applause. The international press it attracted sets it up for its U.S. release when the Weinstein Co. will roll it out through Lionsgate on June 29. Its challenge will be to equal -- or surpass -- the impressive numbers posted by Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which bowed to a $23.9 million opening weekend in 2004.

Writing on his Web site, Moore observed, "Our premiere of 'Sicko' at the Cannes film festival has been an overwhelming success ... and I can't wait to show it to you when it opens on June 29th." Cannes provided a solid launching pad for Moore's last two films, and there's no reason to believe history won't repeat itself.

Gregg Goldstein contributed to this column.
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