The Cannes festival summons up visions of glamour and wealth, parties on yachts, and couture on red carpet. Today’s economy, however, summons up none of those visions. And the very uniquely shaky current financial climate means the film festival will welcome a particularly dissonant crowd of dealmakers; Europeans and Americans will be wondering if they’re watching each other from passing trains, Europe heading toward ruin, America toward boon (although still unnerved by last week’s stock-market drop). It will all make for an unstable market made all the twitchier by these four questions ...
Will the studios run for the middle?
Many insiders are predicting a dampened market at the 2010 festival. However, that’s not to say that the studios aren’t going to be spending at all. In fact, they're now in the market to buy the kind of mid-priced movie that they'd stopped making themselves. After 2008’s financial crash, movie-theater profits increased, as people thought that a ticket actually was a good entertainment value, as compared to, say, buying a DVD. Tempted by this growing attendance, studios decided the best thing to do was to stock up on big-budget, four-quadrant movies like Spider-Man and Transformers that would appeal to everybody. Either that or the occasional low-budget film that their bottom lines barely feel. But the $20 to $40 million movie was the third rail.
Yet the big-risk-bigger-reward rule doesn’t necessarily hold true over time. Let’s take an example from 2004, a year from which movies are just now having their complete profits calculated: A source tells us that Fox’s I, Robot cost $147 million. Today, after all box office and ancillaries are factored in, the movie has made approximately $55 million profit. The studio also released Alien vs. Predator in 2004. It cost $40 million; without the same huge marketing costs and free of gross-participation players like Will Smith, it has now made a $92 million profit. So in risking nearly $100 million more for I, Robot, they made half as much.
A new desire for the middle ground will be what may decide one of the festival’s biggest deals. Sony, Universal, and Fox are all in negotiations with Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp (which made Taken and Hitman) to acquire some of Besson’s prepackaged, modestly priced action films, the kind that usually hit solid doubles or better: Taken, which cost $25 million, made $227 million worldwide. The idea of easily acquiring some reasonably priced finished product is especially appealing to Sony, which has a giant hole in their schedule next year where Spider-Man 4 was supposed to be.
Stars will sing for their supper, but will anybody feed them?
Besson’s mid-range movies are appealing because they’re not that risky: Fast, bloody action will always make its money back when it doesn’t have that much money to make back. More thoughtful movies in this price range, however, are a tougher sell, no matter who’s attached. That’s why many name-brand stars attached to complicated or more serious projects are coming to Cannes to try to drum up international financing to get their films in production. For example, Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are attached to The Impossible, a take on the 2004 Indonesian tsunami with sci-fi overtones (and to be directed by The Orphanage’s Juan Antonio Bayona); it already has U.S. distribution through Summit, but no production budget. Clive Owen is also coming chapeau in hand to get funding for Intruders, a drama about an 11-year-old girl confronting her demons.
European governments have just poured a trillion dollars into rescuing their sickly profligate EU neighbors, so Cannes might seem like the last place one would head for financing. However, amid such uncertainty, Hollywood is hoping that the state-funded media companies attending the festival will want to spend like drunken sailors one last time before their bureaucratic nannies cinch the purse strings tight.
Will the studio premieres translate to box office?
Usually Cannes features an array of big studio projects opening to big fanfare; who could forget Jerry Seinfeld zip-lining in a bee costume for Bee Movie, no matter how hard one may try? But this year there are only a handful of “event” debuts, and those films will be scrutinized all the more for their scarcity.
If Robin Hood debuts to jeers tonight, will it doom the Russell Crowe film? (Or was it already doomed?) Then again, at least the film opens in theaters in only two days, giving it time to outrun any transatlantic boos in its first domestic weekend. But what of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps? Fox delayed its opening until September to premiere at Cannes, where Stone is beloved. But while debuting any studio picture at Cannes gets you attention and prestige, prestige doesn’t get audiences off the sofa. Plus, it also carries big risks: If WS:MNS is welcomed poorly, four months is a lot of time for a film to marinate in bad online buzz.
Then there’s the one studio film in competition at Cannes: Doug Liman's Valerie Plame story Fair Game. Ripped-from-the-headlines films about the Iraq War have collectively made about as much as Gigli, so even if Fair Game is a Cannes favorite, what does that really translate to? Hell, critics carried The Hurt Locker around on their shoulders all the way from the festival circuit to the Oscars, and it only grossed $16 million.
Will execs' expense accounts still stand up to Cannes prices?
At the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, where agents and execs historically go to woo exciting new international talent, prices remain proudly pre-recessionary. At the bar, a mojito or daquiri costs $33, and a celebratory magnum of Roederer Cristal vintage will set you back $1,132. And if you shop around, you're not gonna find much cheaper. So is the money worth the Moet?
We say: Bottoms up! Here’s to finding out the hard way!