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Company Town | REPORT FROM CANNES

Big Studios Absent at Cannes : No-Shows Illustrate the Film Market's Changing Nature

May 10, 1996|MARK SAYLOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANNES, France — Mickey Mouse opened the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday evening, appearing for eight minutes before the tuxedoed opening night audience in the Walt Disney Co. short "Runaway Brain."

The surprising thing was not the choice of the cartoon, but that beyond Mickey's triumphant opening moments, the major American movie studios are virtual no-shows this year at the world's most famous film festival.

Few of the studio chiefs are even coming to Cannes, and only one studio movie has made it to the competition list. (Michael Cimino's "Sundancer" is being distributed by Warner Bros.)

"The studios are less involved," said Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Co.'s movie and television operations, who is one of those not making the trip.

This is the 49th anniversary of the festival, but only the first one since last year's historic changes in the entertainment industry, when the major conglomerates bought and merged their way to unprecedented levels of power and reach.

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Is Cannes--the most publicized event in the movie world after the Academy Awards--becoming an afterthought in the new realm of gargantuan entertainment companies?

Organizers of the event say it is just because of timing this year that major studio films aren't prominent in the competition.

Although that may be the case, Roth and others believe that the conglomeration of the media businesses in some regards has "preempted the commercial standing of Cannes."

Norman J. Katz, a former president of international distribution for Warner, remembers the days when Hollywood studios would make a huge effort to captivate Cannes. The festival then was arguably the premier launching pad for foreign markets.

But Katz, 76, who has attended all but two of the Cannes festivals since 1947, said those were days when foreign theatrical sales accounted for but a quarter or a third of a film's revenue.

Today, foregin revenues are commonly 60% or even 70% of a film's box office take. Studios have become far more sophisticated about their foreign distribution, devising intricate strategies and making alliances in each of the key markets around the world. They want control and they want to avoid risk. So except in particular circumstances, they have less need to use Cannes for launching a film internationally.

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Roth said, "The successful companies have recognized the importance of the global market" and are exploiting it in three ways.

They've hired aggressive people to identify international film acquisitions and they've made alliances with successful producers. The studios, or the entertainment companies that own them, also have bought independent production companies that produce a different kind of film and are deeply involved in Cannes. Disney, for example, owns Miramax, which is run independently by Harvey and Bob Weinstein and is, as it has been for years, a major player in both in the market and the festival this year.

Other companies active here include Fine Line (Turner), Sony Classics, Spelling Entertainment (controlled by Viacom), Showtime (Viacom), HBO (Time Warner) and New Regency (distributed by Warner).

Mark Canton, chairman of the Sony studios and another nonattendee of Cannes this year, believes the major studios will continue to use Cannes selectively when they have the right film. Last year, Sony made a splash with "To Die For," a film for which there were few expectations until it was well received by international critics at Cannes. The film went on to a profitable domestic and international run.

The timing of Cannes in May also is increasingly problematic for studios, which are preoccupied at this time of year with their summer blockbusters, the kind of movie that tends not to be regarded highly in Cannes.

Canton and other studio heads said Cannes would work better for the kinds of films that studios tend to release in the fall, but "nobody wants to tip their hand too early."

Canton also noted that Cannes is notoriously expensive. Stars bring families and entourages and stay in hotel rooms costing $500 or more a night. Throw in travel and a lavish party and costs can quickly run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Sources said PolyGram might be planning to spend as much as $1 million to promote the well-received British film "Trainspotting" here next week.)

Even for a movie studio, this is real money.

Another top studio executive, who asked not to be named, addressed a more touchy question for the festival organizers.

"The French government has been more anti-American-film than any other country," he said. "This has become more pronounced even as the market has become more global."

He said that hostility adds to the sense of risk in entering a film for Cannes competition.

Katz, now the president of Norkat Co., a Beverly Hills distributor and consultancy, thinks such political questions are secondary and that the studios will come back to Cannes, maybe even for a gala 50th anniversary next year, when they have the right films.

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