Cannes: Do Boos Really Matter?

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions teamed on U.S. rights for 'The Sea of Trees' just two days before the infamous boo-gate.

So the hot title you spent a sizable portion of your acquisitions budget on before Cannes even began has just been torn to shreds in its first Palais press screening, with the boos still echoing loudly around the Croisette. What’s next? Don’t despair, as it might not necessarily be all doom and gloom. After all, Taxi Driver famously took a beating in front of the Cannes crowds in 1976, and was booed when it won the Palme d’Or.

“The Cannes audience isn’t really representative of a general audience,” says David Kosse, the Film4 head who previously was Universal Pictures international president, and before that led U.K. distributor Momentum. “It’s a bubble environment where expectations are a certain way.”

Cannes critics are notoriously harsher than most. “The main bad boys are the French,” says Sean O’Kelly of U.K. sales and distribution banner Carnaby International, who says he was working with The Pianist back in 2002 but wasn’t in town to celebrate the Palme d’Or win, his bosses having decided to scale back on spending because of initial feedback that “people didn’t like it.”

Sometimes those who race to slam a film straight out of a screening are championing it months later upon its release. 2009 veterans may well remember the attacks that Inglourious Basterds received after its first showing, with one noted critic calling it an “armor-plated turkey.” The film went on to earn more than $320 million, the bad initial reviews long since forgotten.

Others to have drawn Cannes ridicule only to go on to box office gold include O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Da Vinci Code.

Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, emerged as one of the heavily savaged titles from 2014 but, unlike Basterds, time hasn’t had quite the same healing qualities. The film took almost a full year to be released and it went straight to VOD with only a limited theatrical showing.

Theresa Roberts, senior vp publicity for international and UK production at eOne, which had the film for the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, said that when it came to marketing, a different approach was used to help “rebrand” the film following its Cannes’ mauling. “We gave Ryan the right to reply. We didn’t do the normal interviews for the press. We did Q&As with the audience to ask Ryan questions about the film and his vision.”

And as for 2014’s biggest jeerjerker, Grace of Monaco had a brief, mostly insignificant flutter in international theaters before The Weinstein Company sold it straight to Lifetime. In the U.S. Box Office Mojo puts its total earnings at $26.5 million, which may not be close to The King’s Speech-style $414 million Harvey Weinstein was perhaps initially hoping for, but at least the film clawed back at least some of the budget.

So what of the current hot topic now? Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions teamed on U.S. rights for The Sea of Trees just two days before the infamous boo-gate, while eOne acquired a multiple territory deal back in Berlin.

O’Kelly thinks that the prestige of being an official selection should be enough to keep a film like Gus Van Sant’s from disaster, although he says he’d probably “hold back” the film’s release for a while.

“I suppose most distributors would go for a controlled release,” he adds. “You don’t dump the film though. Only the Americans do that.”