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'Indiana Jones' on the French Riviera: Upside to a Little Bad Buzz

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May 17, 2008 | 4:47am EDT

As the Cannes Film Festival prepares for Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which premieres on Sunday, there is a question that begs asking. Why did Steven Spielberg and George Lucas decide to bring this ‘popcorn movie’ to face the jaded industry types and elite critics on the French Riviera’

In 2006, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard decided to open The Da Vinci Code at Cannes, which actually made some sense. The film carried an R-rating, and it was set in France with a chunk of the film being shot in the Louvre Museum. Much has been made of the savage reception received by the Dan Brown adaptation starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, and the filmmakers were probably expecting friendlier reviews. Still, the critical bloodbath did nothing to dissuade moviegoers as The Da Vinci Code generated $77M in the U.S. and $224M worldwide on its opening weekend alone.

Although Cannes is viewed as an important festival, it is decidedly unconventional and noncommercial. Others might say that its juries are mercurial at best and, at worst, completely out-of-touch with what moviegoers want to see. Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not in competition, and it is not in step with the more specialized films that generally play at Cannes.

What kind of movies play well at the festival? In the past 25 years, 27 films have been recognized with the Palme d’Or (there were two ties), and they combined to gross less than $400M in the U.S. Note that fully half of that gross is thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Eighteen of those Palme d’Or winners went on to gross less than $5M in the U.S., and only seven managed to score more than $10M. 

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are very smart people. They have the most remarkable resumes in the history of film. They certainly know that there's a chance that new Indy will get beat up at this high profile venue. Can negative reviews from Cannes be a good thing?

When Spielberg and Lucas have their names attached to a project, the expectations soar. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie that is held in almost holy reverence, and there is virtually no way meet the lofty expectations that filmgoers have for Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is set for release next Wednesday at midnight.

When I landed on The Drudge Report today and saw the headline ‘WILL INDY GET THE CANNES JEER’’, I remembered what Lucas told USA Today back in March.

"When you do a movie like this, a sequel that's very, very anticipated, people anticipate ultimately that it's going to be the Second Coming and it's not. It's just a movie. Just like the other movies. You probably have fond memories of the other movies. But if you went back and looked at them, they might not hold up the same way your memory holds up. You're not going to get a lot of accolades doing a movie like this. All you can do is lose."

Possibly, the best way to lower expectations for Indy is to show it to the same elites who honored the bleak abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days last year, and Ken Loach’s portrait of early 20th century Ireland, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the year before that, and L’Enfant about a couple that sells their baby on the black market the year before that, and so on.

The Crystal Skull reviews coming out of France seem destined to be mixed, and I suspect there will be some rather negative ones. This is not a movie made for, or in need of, critical acceptance, but some of these less-than-spectacular notices will be splashed across websites as soon as Sunday. These stories will not hurt ticket sales for this truly critic-proof film, but Indy fans will naturally lower their expectations for the film.

As I have previously written, the industry tracking for Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is in the stratosphere. The movie will generate at least $160M for the Thursday-thru-Monday Memorial Day weekend and that number could easily reach $170M+. By the time Harrison Ford’s bullwhip cracks Wednesday at midnight, fans will have read a lot of the reports from Cannes (and critics who see the film this weekend in New York and L.A.), and Indy fans worldwide are certain to like the movie more than those critics. In fact, I suspect those fans will be pleasantly surprised.

U.S. BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE OF PALME D’OR WINNERS

1983 - The Ballad of Narayama (unreleased)

1984 - Paris, Texas ($2.1M)

1985 - When Father Was Away on Business ($16,000)

1986 - The Mission - ($17.2M)

1987 - Under the Sun of Satan ($69,000)

1988 - Pelle the Conqueror ($2M)

1989 - sex, lies, and videotape ($24.7M)

1990 - Wild At Heart ($14.5M)

1991 - Barton Fink ($6.1M)

1992 - The Best Intentions ($1.2M)

1993 - TIE: The Piano ($40.1M) and Farewell My Concubine ($5.2M)

1994 - Pulp Fiction ($107.9M)

1995 - Underground ($171,000)

1996 - Secrets & Lies ($13.4M)

1997 - TIE:  The Eel  ($418,000) and Taste of Cherry ($312,000)

1998 - Eternity & A Day ($107,000)

1999 - Rosetta ($267,000)

2000 - Dancer in the Dark ($4.1M)

2001 - The Son's Room ($1M)

2002 - The Pianist ($32.5M)

2003 - Elephant ($1.2M)

2004 - Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119.2M)

2005 - L'Enfant (The Child) ($652,000)

2006 - The Wind that Shakes the Barley ($1.8M)

2007 - 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ($1.2M)

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