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Only one film in the 60-year history of the Festival de Cannes has won the Palme d’Or and gone on to nab the best picture prize at the Academy Awards: 1955’s butcher-with-a-bleeding-heart tale “Marty.” These long odds don’t dissuade the studios, however. Each year, Cannes is spring training for the far-off awards season, with marketers vying for prestige premieres for their end-of-year releases and splashy events to generate buzz for their summer blockbusters.
Take Cannes 2006 as a case in point: “Babel,” “Dreamgirls,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Volver” all screened in their entirety or showed media-friendly trailers to generate interest among the assembled muckety-mucks and press corps. The slate for the 2007 edition of Cannes, which runs from May 16-25, again mixes popcorn with prestige: There’s Wong Kar-Wai’s first English-language production, the Weinstein Co.’s “My Blueberry Nights,” starring Norah Jones; Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest picture for Miramax, “No Country for Old Men”; Steven Soderbergh’s all-handsome, all-the-time Warner Bros. Pictures entertainer “Ocean’s Thirteen”; and an extended version of Quentin Tarantino’s half of the Weinstein Co.’s “Grindhouse,” the road-race thriller “Death Proof,” also waiting in the wings.
According to Cannes veterans, there are actually two parallel tracks that films can follow at the festival. Projects shown as part of the Official Selection get a ceremonious release full of pomp and circumstance as they unspool at the Palais des Festivals, while those that are there purely to introduce the title to the international market get the full mayhem that the Hollywood publicity machine can unfurl. And making sure the whole thing doesn’t get derailed to the detriment of both sides of the festival is a balance that marketers strive to strike every year.
“The smart players have a certain amount of respect for the festival,” one marketing industry insider says. “Even as they plan these extracurricular activities, they are conscious of what’s going on in the official party.”
Remember that old adage about art and commerce?
Last year, for instance, the event that probably received the most press coverage was the splashy “Dreamgirls” teaser, a 20-minute montage of scenes and songs from the film, which was not scheduled to be released until Christmas — and wouldn’t even be finished for another five months. The lure of Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Hudson walking the red carpet drew hundreds of journalists and attendees, resulting in an overflow theater being set up to accommodate those who wanted to watch the sneak peek. The commotion — as much as the teaser itself — made news, a savvy result for production entity DreamWorks.
While the ultimate awards outcome was mixed for “Dreamgirls” — Hudson’s Oscar win didn’t quite outweigh the film’s snub in the best picture category — its $152.6 million worldwide boxoffice take can be considered a rousing success and one that owes at least some small debt of gratitude to the promotion it received at Cannes.
There is a history of debuting select footage at the festival to generate early acclaim by kick-starting the chatter about awards season. On productions that already have been rumored to be troubled, the reward definitely outweighs the risk. The 20-minute teaser of “Gangs of New York” debuted in 2002 amid stories of budget overruns, Leonardo DiCaprio accidentally breaking Daniel Day-Lewis’ nose on the set during a fight scene and rumors of Martin Scorsese’s final edit being destined to reach a staggering running time.
Hauling DiCaprio, his co-star Cameron Diaz and director Scorsese out on the red carpet can almost never go wrong, and the movie’s teaser received generally good notices. Of course, Harvey Weinstein did go a bit off his rocker when talking to reporters afterward, reportedly saying about the troubles on the set: “This whole story is totally fucking exaggerated. … This is an attempt at art, (unlike) half the shit you see in goddamn Hollywood.”
Regardless, the proof was in the product, which tallied 10 Oscar nominations — but no wins.
For those familiar with the French penchant for catcalling, boos are immaterial: Did anyone actually think Sofia Coppola’s unconventional 2006 biopic “Marie Antoinette,” her take on the life of the French anti-heroine, would be greeted with anything but suspicion? Still, the movie persevered and went on to earn a respectable $47 million worldwide and an Oscar for costume design.
Some blockbuster juggernauts at Cannes are just too big to derail, no matter how violent the reaction. Last year’s Out of Competition screening of Ron Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code” inspired an almost Biblical wrath among attendees, who booed and derisively whistled at the film, then sat in icy silence while the credits rolled. The Gallic repudiation obviously had no lasting effects on the film’s $756 million worldwide boxoffice take.
And it’s not just these kinds of teasers and premieres that can alert the public to an attention-grabber coming soon to theaters — getting Cannes attendees good ol’ fashioned liquored up also helps. In hindsight, it might seem odd to consider 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” an underdog, but at the time, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien weren’t a touchstone for anyone other than readers in the English-speaking world. “You think Zimbabwean film buyers, Malaysian film buyers, Bolivian film buyers knew about hobbits?” the marketing exec notes.
To ameliorate that, New Line threw a party like no other: They shipped in sets and costumes from their filming location in New Zealand and set them up in a chateau outside Cannes. Guests, each of whom was bestowed with a medallion for entry instead of a boring, commonplace ticket, could gape at orc and troll sculptures and peer inside hobbit huts while costumed soldiers wandered throughout the party. Needless to say, things turned out fine for the “LOTR” trilogy, both internationally and in terms of awards season. (Final count for the three movies: 17 Oscars, $2.9 billion in worldwide ticket sales.)
This Cannes, one might expect history to repeat itself. New Line is unveiling its adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy title “His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass,” a lavish Chris Weitz-directed picture set in a parallel universe and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Selected scenes from the film will be screened, and one can bet the plan is to position the project as the logical heir to the “LOTR” mantle of a quality epic with the potential to appeal to a massive audience.
Hard as it is for the studios to pull off these kinds of spectacles to launch a title, the indies face a bigger obstacle: They have the same number of distracting events and movies premiering on the Croisette to compete with but less money with which to break through all the noise.
Lloyd Kaufman, president and co-founder of Troma Entertainment, is well-known for his cheap — as in tawdry, and as in inexpensive — marketing stunts on the beach. “We have to use the al-Qaida method of publicity,” he says. “They have very little money, and they wind up with lots of publicity.” But the necessity of such antics underscores a bigger problem, Kaufman says: There is little audience access at Cannes — for either movie fans or acquisition executives — to truly independent cinema.
“Last year, we had to compete with ‘Dreamgirls,'” he says. “That was a crap movie on every possible level, but the mainstream media is (subject to) brainwashing.”
And while his company can’t compete with an extravagant, catered party thrown at a chateau, Kaufman says that each year Troma hosts an independent filmmaker parade down the Croisette that is open to those who haven’t found a home at the studios — or aren’t seeking one. “We have to keep the flame of independent cinema alive because it’s been stolen by the big conglomerates,” he says.
For those movies that are officially part of the festival, either in the Official Selection, Un Certain Regard, as part of the Critics Week or up for the first-time filmmaker awards, like the Camera d’Or, the logistics are a little less hectic, but don’t think that marketers get a complete break. Picturehouse president Bob Berney admits he was wary last year when director Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” was scheduled for the final Saturday of the festival as the second-to-last film to be shown In Competition.
“We were worried that no one would be there,” he says. “I know personally, that on that last Saturday, a lot of acquisitions people are just done.”
As it turned out, “Labyrinth” played to a full house and received a 25-minute standing ovation. Berney says the right mix of people showed up, a group that included American and European critics, as well as executives with the New York Film Festival, who extended an invitation to the film right after its Cannes debut. “Cannes started the buzz,” Berney says. “We got invited to other festivals, and then our summer screenings for the critics were full. That never happens.”
Cannes is well-known for playing favorites among filmmakers — or, as one frequent Cannes attendee puts it: “If Pedro (Almodovar) wants a movie in that festival, he gets a movie in that festival.” And a smooth screening, photocall and press conference bode well for future selections. “There is a progression,” one marketer notes. “You start in one section and work up to the main selection.”
If history is any indication, the marketer appears to be quite right. Tarantino’s 1992 directorial debut “Reservoir Dogs” screened at Cannes Out of Competition, but the director’s follow-up, 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” claimed the Palme d’Or — and undoubtedly led to Tarantino being named jury president in 2004.
A similar path was followed by Wong, who was named Prix de la Mise en Scene — best director — in 1997 for “Happy Together” and who had two subsequent films In Competition: 2000’s “In the Mood for Love” and 2004’s “2046.” (It speaks to Wong’s reputation that the chaos surrounding that year’s screening of “2046” — the prints were delayed because of special effects difficulties — didn’t damage his good name.) Last year, the filmmaker headed up the jury.
Some hypothesize that Cannes is looking for a “greatest hits roster” as part of its 60th anniversary celebrations, which just might explain how Soderbergh — winner of the Critics Week’s prize and the Palme d’Or for “sex, lies and videotape” in 1989 and who competed at the festival with 1993’s “King of the Hill” — can secure a plum spot in this year’s festival for the couldn’t-be-more commercial “Ocean’s Thirteen.”
After all, one wouldn’t want to give those Cannes audiences any ideas about heading over to Monaco and knocking over a casino without a deeper artistic meaning, right?
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