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The stakes are at their highest at Cannes Film Festival

The festival attracts 3,000 journalists from around the world. The attention can make a film soar or sink it before its general release. Universal hopes 'Robin Hood' soars.

May 13, 2010|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Los Angeles and Cannes, France — It's Hollywood's version of a home-run swing: a pricey premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which can yield a bases-clearing blast — at the risk of a rally-killing strikeout.

With some 3,000 journalists from about 80 countries jamming into the French Riviera for Wednesday's start of the 63rd annual film festival and sales market, Cannes has become an unparalleled press junket for worldwide movie releases. Although the benefits can be tremendous — the early, unstoppable enthusiasm for "Up," Pixar Animation Studios' second-highest grossing film ever, was established in its 2009 Cannes premiere — the downside can be just as dramatic, as the festival's critical thrashing of 2006's "Marie Antoinette" helped send Sofia Coppola's post-modern movie to an early grave.

Universal Pictures kicked off this year's festival with a star-laden screening of " Robin Hood," the studio's expensive period drama that is among the summer movie season's most compelling creative and commercial wagers. Starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett and directed by Ridley Scott, the film opens in many European territories Thursday, a day ahead of its U.S. premiere.

Speaking from the red-carpeted steps of Palais des Festivals in his tuxedo, David Kosse, Universal's international president, said "Robin Hood's" Cannes screening was intended to elevate the film's profile around the world, hours before it lands in such places as Argentina and Vietnam. The studio is estimating — and audience tracking surveys are suggesting — that "Robin Hood" could sell twice as many tickets overseas as it does domestically.

"Cannes is a global launchpad," Kosse said as the hundreds of fans surrounding the theater cheered the celebrities streaming into the premiere of "Robin Hood," which is playing outside of the festival's competition, also the case with Friday's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

"The world's entertainment press, with a particular emphasis on the European press, is all here. It's historically been a great launchpad for adult films and historical epics," he said. "It's just a punctuation mark."

Said the film's producer, Brian Grazer, at a crowded "Robin Hood" news conference: "It's very important. You have an opportunity to capture the whole world's attention at a single moment."

But that moment doesn't come cheaply.

Taking a film's cast and crew (not to mention countless studio executives, agents, managers, assistants and stylists) to Cannes and staging a glitzy premiere and after-party can cost as much as $5 million, studio marketing executives say, or more than 10 times the cost of Los Angeles premiere and party.

In addition to top talent insisting on private jets (do you really think Crowe flies commercial?), travel costs include 24/7 drivers (at hundreds of Euros an hour), budget-busting hotel rooms (on top of exorbitant daily tariffs, most local hotels insist on 10-day minimum bookings, even if the room is occupied for only one night) and a retinue of hair and makeup artists, many of whom aren't based in Europe. When Sony took "Marie Antoinette" to Cannes four years ago, the studio forked out $42,000 just for Coppola's stylists.

For all the costs, though, some studios estimate the publicity that can be generated from a Cannes event — not just a screening, but even a juvenile photo opportunity such as Will Smith and Angelina Jolie's riding around on an inflatable shark to promote 2004's "Shark Tale" — can be worth a fortune in free media, sometimes equal to $10 million in paid advertising, by one studio's estimate.

Movies aimed at discerning adults also can benefit from a Cannes premiere, as it connotes a certain quality: Audiences might think a bit more highly of DreamWorks Animation, knowing that "Shrek" and "Shrek 2" premiered in Cannes. But when a festival title screens poorly, the backlash can be as injurious as all the pictures from the red carpet paparazzi are beneficial.

Even though Sony's "Da Vinci Code" grossed more than $758 million worldwide, its global take was doubtlessly damaged by the critical reaction to its 2006 Cannes launch, where director Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller was beaten down by reviewers (the film collected a measly 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The notices were a bit better for "Marie Antoinette," but the movie never regained its footing after its Cannes premiere — some in the audience, apparently unimpressed with its retelling of French history, actually booed the film. "Marie Antoinette" went on to gross just $16 million domestically (and a more respectable $45 million overseas).

Although the earliest notices for "Robin Hood" have been mixed, the film has many of the attributes that Cannes patrons tend to like: a British director, lots of European history and an A-list star. If all goes right, the movie could soon score a bull's-eye at the box office, helped by its Cannes kickoff. But if critics (especially French reviewers) have qualms about the film's depiction of the French military (think Keystone Kops with epaulets), the arrows could be turned against it.

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