The opening night of the Berlinale might serve True Grit’s international box office prospects, but in general US studios are far more cautious than they used to be about bringing tentpole pictures to festivals.
Paramount Pictures must be pleasantly surprised that domestic audiences responded so well to True Grit which has raked in a spectacular $155m so far. The movie had two strikes against it in mainstream commercial terms - it’s a western and it’s a Coen Brothers movie. Even with that phenomenal US result and ten Oscar nominations in the bag, the film’s international prospects are still uncertain. If westerns are a dubious draw for contemporary audiences in the US, they are positively uninteresting for non-US audiences.
True Grit opens the Berlinale tonight, but it’s not even an international premiere - the film is already playing in Australia and New Zealand. Indeed it was all set to start rolling out overseas in Europe in January, but Paramount delayed the release dates when Berlin stepped in. What better way to boost Grit’s international outlook than the high profile Berlin slot complete with Europe-wide media focus on the Coens, Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Brolin as they walk the red carpet. The studio knows that the film will be well-received by European critics, most of whom saw it in December, and it can carry the Berlinale buzz straight into the marketplace.
For Paramount, it’s a low risk proposition.
The rest of the festival is short on studio movies. In fact, the dearth of Hollywood A-listers making their way to Berlin this year underlines how studios are opting out of the traditional festivals-as-launchpad scenario which they have followed for decades. The only other studio release hitting Potsdamer Platz is Unknown, a thriller starring Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger which is being handled by Warner Bros in much of the world. In Germany, however, it is distributed by StudioCanal subdisidary Kinowelt as part of a several territory distribution agreement with production company Dark Castle.
Last year also saw some major US prestige titles bypass Venice and Toronto. The Social Network and The Fighter were both premiered after those two festivals, while Focus Features’ The American went straight to theatres without even a glimmer of a festival launch. In the last case, Focus was probably aiming to get as much box office mileage out of its George Clooney thriller as possible before audiences started to realize that it was more cerebral and lighter on action than your average movie star gun-toter. A festival premiere might have ruined that strategy by painting The American as an arthouse film.
Therein lies the problem. Festivals these days attract so much media attention - and that includes a multitude of bloggers and members of the public turned online critics - that, if the film doesn’t get a good response, they can do serious damage to a film and its positioning in the marketplace.
That’s not to mention the fact that it can cost a fortune to shuttle heavyweight talent to an A-list film festival and might not serve a distributor’s purpose as well as a targeted three day tour of major European cities or an international junket day in London or New York.
Focus is being strategic about its festival play: while its Sofia Coppola starrer Somewhere won Venice last year, two more of its titles - Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle and Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre - are going into theatres without the festival treatment. The former opens in the US this weekend, while the latter does so on March 11.
US distributors are using festivals far more selectively, and when they do, there is a specific strategic reason. The risk and the cost have to be weighed carefully versus the ultimate value.