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The Passion of the Cash 

Da Vinci Cannes the world

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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IF WESTWOOD LOOKED LIKE a ghost town this month, it’s because all the movie hoopla moved overseas. Sony Pictures skipped the usual mind-numbing local premiere for its big, craptastic summer picture The Da Vinci Code and instead ponied up for an obscenely lavish junket aboard a specially outfitted Eurostar train destined for the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Paramount had its most preening presence in recent memory at the May 17–28 festival, and not just to promote Al Gore’s ecodoc An Inconvenient Truth. (As the newly self-deprecating Gore told the Salle Bunuel crowd that gave him a standing ovation before and after the screening, “I never thought in a million years that my little slide show would bring me to the red carpet in Cannes.”) I couldn’t figure out why these studios and others like 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. were wasting their money on a quaint relic of a rich cinematic past where a handful of stars jet in to prostitute themselves for one night before those hordes of photographers along the Boulevard de la Croisette, and then jet out again on what is basically a tax-deductible excuse for moguls to rack up exorbitant expenses at the Hotel du Cap or The Carlton. All this for what is a self-absorbed competition run by a bunch of Europeans no one’s ever heard of. In other words, who gives a rat’s ass about the Cannes Film Festival?

But then Sony’s The Da Vinci Code opened No. 1 in every country. The final May 19–21 numbers were mind-blowing for such an awful film. Jay Leno was quick to wisecrack that the Christ-centric movie’s new nickname was “The Passion of the Cash.” Altogether, it scored $231.8 million worldwide during its debut weekend: $154.7 mil of it international and $77.1 mil domestic. Film phenomenons don’t happen often in the movie biz, yet on Monday there wasn’t much talk about it in Hollywood. That’s symptomatic of how this town really hates it when good things happen to other studios.

Instead, all anyone in Hollywood could talk about was Da Vinci’s franchise value. Sony owns the rights to the main character, and, not only is Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon also the protagonist in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, he is featured in a new book Brown is penning that takes up where Da Vinci leaves off. That means Sony has the immediate prospect of not only one but two sequels. (Just remember how Sony had that shit bomb Bewitched last summer. They were due.) How fortuitous for the studio that the Vatican made attack after attack on DVC, generating even more publicity for the already well-hyped film before it opened. Now Sony simply needs to keep the Pope on PR retainer.

So what does it all mean? I’ve seen Hollywood’s future, and it is foreign.

FROM NOW ON, BECAUSE TECHNOLOGY increasingly allows for simultaneous releases here and overseas, opening-weekend box office should be reported globally, not just domestically. Usually, foreign gross accounts for about 50 percent to 60 percent of box-office totals, but DVC’s percentage was insane. Get this: DVC ranked only No. 13 on the all-time U.S. opening weekend list, behind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But, internationally, it swamped Passion. It had Japan’s fifth biggest opening day ever on Saturday behind only the three Harry Potter movies and Howl’s Moving Castle (the anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki). It earned double the take on its opening night in Italy of that nation’s previous top film, Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. The widest Hollywood release ever in China, DVC had one of the biggest opening-day box-office returns for a non-Chinese film. In Taiwan, a typhoon was expected to hit, but changed course at the last minute in time for a very strong Friday opening. The movie did huge business in Australia and New Zealand on opening day, and recorded smash openings around Europe — except in France, where there was a major soccer match on Day No. 1. But the box office bounced back on Day No. 2. As for the rotten reviews back home, the Sony suits took the attitude that U.S. critics were out of touch with the public and counted on DVC to be reviewer-proof overseas. It was.

Everything had changed back in summer 2002, when Sony Pictures had four event films: Spider-Man, the Adam Sandler comedy Mr. Deeds, and two sequels, Men in Black II and Stuart Little II. To pack the biggest profit punch, Sony sped up the dubbing and subtitling process so it could simultaneously release all four pictures globally that May, June and July — thus eliminating the usual lag of four months in Europe and a year in Japan. It marked the first time any studio tried this. From then on, the worldwide numbers were like crack for box-office addicts. Paramount’s Mission: Impossible 3 may have done mediocre biz in this country (despite that unusual pattern of heavy bulk-ticket-buying at Hollywood’s ArcLight Theater, which just happens to be located right near the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center), but it did way better overseas.

That puts even more importance on those If-It’s-Tuesday-It-Must-Be-Germany publicity swings that the big stars hate to work but must (as long as they have plenty of agent-negotiated perks). Barbell-brained Arnold Schwarzenegger at least had sense enough to barnstorm around the world for his big flicks like no one before or since. Tom Cruise took a page out of Arnold’s book, and then Brad Pitt took a page out of Tom’s book. Which is why Warner Bros.’ Troy did horribly here but terrifically there, thus saving the tree-hugging derrière of Warner Pic’s head honcho, Alan Horn. (Now he’s counting on foreign to save Poseidon’s sunk box office. But missing from the pic was everything that made Irwin Allen’s 1972 Poseidon Adventure a delicious romp, including the campy and kvetchy Shelley Winters character.)

With all the competing entertainment choices that Americans have, foreign audiences still see films as primo recreation. Plus, the international marketplace isn’t as saturated with megaplexes as we are here; Russia and China and Latin America are just beginning to build movie theaters like crazy. All this has meant that studio bosses and their bean counters aren’t so quick to sell off or even split foreign rights to hedge risk. Brad Grey put an end to that when he took over at Paramount Pictures (though his other idea to replace the studio commissary with a Daily Grill, as if Paramount were a concourse at LAX, is crazy talk, I tell you). In addition, Grey dismantled Paramount’s joint foreign distribution system with Universal (UIP); now his studio will be self-distributing in 15 of the major foreign territories by 2007.

This puts pressure on U.S.-made films to appeal to overseas audiences. For a long time, the mantra among moguls was that American comedies didn’t travel (unless they were animated). It was that cultural thing. So, in 1999, Universal sold off foreign for American Pie. When it turned out that teen titties were appreciated everywhere, the studio kicked itself (or rather, Wall Street slapped around Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose Seagram was Universal’s owner back then). By 2000, Universal had learned its lesson: Meet the Parents (and later its sequel, Meet the Fockers) did boffo box office in this country and around the globe, and Universal raked in all of it.

So what can we expect from the rest of the summer, here and foreign-wise? 20th’s X-Men 3 will fare well, though Brett Ratner’s violent, Hard-R direction was ridiculously given a PG-13 rating. Not even Universal thinks The Breakup is funny, despite Vince Vaughn’s best efforts. (Please, can we accept once and for all that Jennifer Aniston is a movie stiff?) Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is gonna kill both here and overseas. Warner Bros.’ Superman Returns, now a metrosexual in Metropolis, will bring more than respectable returns. Paramount’s World Trade Center will be box-office challenged, despite Oliver Stone’s international luster, because of its 9/11 subject matter. And the anticipation is that M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water from Warner Bros. will drown, and, pity, not even near a topless beach in Cannes.

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