The Festival That Hates To Love America

On the final night of the Cannes film festival, Clint Eastwood opened the envelope containing the name of this year's best picture. After a few moments of suspense, he announced the jurors' verdict: Pulp

Fiction, by Quentin Tarantino. The quirky flick, starring John Travolta and Bruce Willis, had drawn mixed reactions at its screening, and as Tarantino came up to accept his prize, the predominantly French audience filled the auditorium with heckles and boos.

BAD BLOOD. For days, the skies over Cannes had been relentlessly cloudy, and the elite of the global film business were forced to dodge intermittent rain as they arrived here for the annual gathering. The weather fit the festival's mood, which was decidedly downbeat compared with past glitz and glamour. Four years ago, the last time I was here, the sun shone brightly on such stars as Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Striving to outmuscle each other, Arnold and Sly hogged the spotlight. Subsequent festivals went down in the annals of Cannes as the year Madonna came, the year Elizabeth Taylor came....

Not this year. With the exception of Eastwood, who headed the festival jury, and No.2 judge the ever-beautiful Catherine Deneuve, the elegant seaside promenade known as La Croisette was almost star-free. Eleventh-hour appearances by Willis and Kathleen Turner weren't enough to offset the prevailing impression: This is the year the big box-office American movie stars stayed home.

Rumors of a Hollywood conspiracy were rife in the weeks leading up to the festival. There has been bad blood across the Atlantic for years because of European laws that control foreign--read "American"--access to TV networks and movie theaters. But the feud heated up last year. During the marathon talks over the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, the Europeans insisted on exempting entertainment products. They won. So, earlier this year, Spain announced it was preparing a bill that would make it harder for foreign films to be released there, in a bid to reduce the 77% share of its box office now held by Hollywood. And here in Cannes, French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon announced that he'd favor the dismantling of UIP, the umbrella company that distributes the films of Paramount, Universal, and MGM/United Artists in Europe. UIP's exemption from antitrust laws is up for renewal in Brussels.

SIEGE OF SUITS. But the rumors of a retaliatory American boycott were false. Top stars may have passed on this one, but Hollywood dealmakers were out in leather-tanned force: Close to 100 executives from major studios were here fiddling with their cellular phones. After months of squabbling over GATT, the U.S. and European film industries were hailing the start of a new era of cooperation. Says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and a sometime saber-rattler of note: "GATT happened 1,000 years ago."

Therefore, members of the American contingent were practically tripping over one another in an intensified hunt for foreign product. Most of them represented "independent" distributors, which, with few exceptions, are independent in name alone, having been bought up by major companies. It helped that during the festival, Variety showed the British-made Four Weddings and a Funeral in the No.1 spot at U.S. box offices, with a $31.4 million gross after its 10th week on the screens.

Every day, local Editions of the trade papers, including Variety, brought news of another spate of indie purchases. Miramax, a Hollywood ministudio that was recently bought by Walt Disney Co., snapped up so many foreign flicks that people spoke of "getting Miramaxed." The No.1 reason cited for this feeding frenzy: America's insatiable hunger for new films to fill the zillions of channels on the coming Information Highway.

Truth be told, the festival probably could have used some Hollywood flash to counterbalance the overwhelming diet of artsy international product. Most of the films in competition were of exotic origin: Iranian, Cambodian, Mexican, Indian, Romanian. Cinematically, they tended to be the well-crafted products of auteur directors, larded with "significance," quality films from countries previously not known for their cinema.

Still, neither haut cinema nor a shortage of stars had much effect on the loopy rituals of festival week. Outside the festival hall, palm trees swayed over a cast of jugglers, stuntmen, and hot-dog salesmen. A small armada of yachts bobbed at anchor in the Bay of Cannes. Even with no chance of a Liz- or Madonna-spotting, dozens of fans waited near the steps that lead to the screenings for glimpses of celebrities in eveningwear.

TASTE TEST. "I don't think Stallone and Madonna really belong in Cannes," sniffed Daniel Toscan du Plantier, head of Unifrance, the government film-export agency. He thinks the festival should keep to its role as "an artistic gathering" for thoughtful films. If that chestnut--which the French trot out year after year--sounds like snooty Gallic arrogance to Americans, they might note that, according to Toscan, former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills told him at industry talks a few years ago, as he tried to hawk more French movies to America, that the French should stick to making cheese.

Toscan is not deterred. "My feeling is that there will be a profound shift toward foreign films in the U.S., because audiences will be craving for far more films than Hollywood can provide," he says hopefully. But so far, American audiences haven't been in tune with France's sometimes cerebral offerings. One probable exception this year: Les Visiteurs, a hit comedy planned for U.S. release soon.

Foreign filmmakers have craved a bigger share of the U.S. market for years, of course. And they're always whining about the invasion of Hollywood no-brainers filled with heart-pounding car chases and elaborate explosions. The dealmaking here may help Europeans keep on feeling artistically superior about their film industry, but it likely has no object loftier than filling the Infobahn and fattening Hollywood's bottom line. And don't forget whose smirking face fills the screen when this year's Cannes champ unspools: that Hollywood diehard, Bruce Willis.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.