How Cannes' Palme d'Or Prize Affects Box-Office Grosses (Cannes)

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" leveraged its 2004 Palme d'Or into a $222.5 million payday, while 2010 winner "Uncle Boonmee" barely cracked the $1 million mark.

Winning the top jury prize at the Festival de Cannes, the Palme d’Or, doesn’t necessarily translate into worldwide box-office gold, but it sure helps -- sometimes explosively so.

Fahrenheit 9/11, director Michael Moore’s politically contentious documentary, leveraged its 2004 Palme into a $222.5 million worldwide box-office payday and a No. 1 ranking as the biggest Cannes top prizewinner ever to play in theaters in the U.S.  

2010’s Palme winner, on the other hand, has barely cracked the $1 million mark globally. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has the distinction of being the first Cannes top prizewinner from Thailand, but it has hardly made a dent so far commercially.

A review of the Palme d’Or winners this century reveals that in between these two extremes lies at least seven Cannes winners that have gone on to command solid double-digit box office worldwide -- though cracking the U.S. market remains a tough task.

Lars von Trier’s 2000 winner Dancer in the Dark, for example, clocked a mild $4.2 million in the U.S. and Canada but collected a respectable $38 million from the rest of the world.

Ditto for Nanni Moretti’s 2001 winner The Son’s Room, which grossed about $1 million in the U.S. but $15 million offshore, and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), which drew just $1.8 million in the U.S. and Canada but garnered more than $20 million elsewhere.

Laurent Cantet’s The Class drew about $3.7 million from its domestic theatrical run but grossed more than six times that -- $23.3 million -- in foreign markets. Similarly, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon drew just $2.2 million from the U.S. and Canada but gathered $20.4 million from its offshore run.

The second-biggest box-office gusher among recent Palme d’Or winners is Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which made off with the top competitive prize in 2002. The win sparked a successful commercial run [gross: $120 million worldwide], propelled by the Holocaust drama’s three Oscar wins in 2003.  

What exactly is the commercial upside of winning the top prize? “It means a lot in France and also in Japan, one of the few markets that really values the Palme d’Or,” says David Kornblum, vp international theatrical sales and distribution at Disney.

France was the third-largest foreign market last year, garnering a total box office of $1.6 billion. Japan was the world’s biggest territory — outside the U.S. and Canada — in 2010, registering total box office of $2.4 billion.  

In general, Hollywood’s major studios avoid placing films in Cannes’ main competitive category, thus endrunning consideration for a Palme d’Or. However, the majors have always viewed Cannes as a powerhouse commercial platform, providing entree to key European territories.

“There’s been great historical value in having movies open in Cannes and going on to fantastic European results,” Kornblum says.  “Cannesis a fantastic starting point because you have the majority of key European press and opinion leaders congregating in one spot.”

Although Universal’s Robin Hood — from director Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe — was manhandled by the critics when it opened last year Out of Competition at Cannes, it went on to gross more than $216 million on the foreign theatrical circuit, more than double its box-office take in the U.S. and Canada.

No surprise that Disney is ramping up the hoopla this year with its Out of Competition opening of Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth sequel in producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s adventure-fantasy series starring Johnny Depp. Following its Cannes exposure, On Stranger Tides premieres May 20 worldwide.

The enormously remunerative Pirates series [total box office of $2.7 billion so far worldwide] has consistently drawn beefier numbers abroad. 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, for example, grossed $654 million offshore, more than double its domestic take.

Also opening Out of Competition is Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Midnight in Paris, the festival’s 2011 opener that bows offshore May 20 via Sony and other distributors.

Directors Gus Van Sant and von Trier make a Cannes return in different competitive categories. The former’s Restless opens the Un Certain Regard section, and von Trier’s Melancholia will vie for a Palme d’Or in Competition.   

Summit International is taking the bull by the horns by opening director Terence Malick’s long-awaited The Tree of Life in Competition. A Palme d’Or win for this drama fantasy starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn would certainly boost Malik’s box-office fortunes in the U.S.