Cannes 2021 provided some of the best films of the year and some of the worst box office returns. Here’s why this year’s festival might be different.
After the Cannes cancellation of 2020 and the postponement of 2021, the Official Selection 2022 reflects a return to normal: a balance between class (high quality potential) and coarse (potentially strong beyond financial). Last year was a different story: Cannes produced excellent programming that American audiences largely ignored.
A lot of it was a matter of timing. COVID postponed Cannes last year to July 2021 and, after Cannes was canceled altogether in 2020, there was a backlog of excellent titles awaiting their moment on the Croisette. However, studio films were virtually absent; their distributors didn’t have much interest in spending to promote their titles in July.
Led by “Drive My Car,” Cannes 2021 films showed unprecedented dominance in year-end critics’ polls, including four of the top six in IndieWire’s Critics’ Poll, four of the top five in Sight and Sound and six of the top 10 of the Cahiers du Cinéma.
Despite the films’ lofty pedigrees, Cannes 2021 finances rank near the bottom. The distribution statistics in the United States and Canada were excellent: of the 24 entries for the official competition, 18 received a national release or will soon. Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight) alone grossed well over a million. It grossed $16.1 million after its Oct. 22 release — a believable figure in tough times for the theater, but also the fewest tickets sold for an Anderson film since his debut, “Bottle Rocket.”
Cannes debut titles “Stillwater” (Focus) and Japanese animation “Belle” (GKIDS) grossed $14.5 million and $4 million, respectively. Two others topped $2 million with “The Worst Person in the World” (Neon) at $3 million and “Drive My Car” (Janus) at $2.3 million. Only Palme d’Or winners “Titane” (Neon) and “Red Rocket” (A24) have otherwise exceeded $1 million.
2021. © Janus Films/courtesy Everett Collection
Compare that to 2019 when “Parasite” in Korean grossed $53 million. Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ grossed $142 million. Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” grossed $4.5 million and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” grossed $3.7 million (a COVID-truncated gross). The out-of-competition “Rocketman” grossed $96 million. Director’s Fortnight’s “The Lighthouse” by Robert Eggers grossed over $10 million. In 2018, the Polish film “Cold War” and the Japanese “Shoplifters” each grossed over $3 million.
Of course, distribution has changed a lot since 2018. Even with substandard revenues, it’s possible that 2021 returns have improved with VOD gaming and streamer sales. Of course, unrelated, it is impossible to assess with certainty.
In France, where almost all the titles of the Cannes competition are released, it was a relatively weak year for French theater. “The French Dispatch” was also the top draw there ($3.7 million). The Cannes closing night title, “OSS 117: From Africa with Love” (unreleased in the United States), grossed $13.3 million.
The excitement of Cannes 2021 didn’t always translate to the real world: Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” wasn’t an escape; Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” stalled at less than $400,000. Leos Carax’s “Annette” streamed primarily on Amazon, with its limited theatrical results unreported. Even in France, none entered the top 20 for 2021.
Some of the highest titles in the 2021 contest have fallen flat in the United States. Sean Penn’s “Flag Day” (United Artists) failed to reach $500,000. “Bergman Island” (IFC), which had a same-day VOD release, only made $145,000. “Compartment Number 6” (Sony Pictures Classics) fell short of $200,000.
This year sees the return of high-profile studio titles like “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount), “Elvis” (Warner Bros.) and “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (United Artists). The competition includes titles from directors with previous specialty theatrical successes like David Cronenberg (“Crimes of the Future”/Neon), Claire Denis (“Stars of the Future”/A24), James Gray (“Armageddon Time”/Focus) and Kelly Reichardt (“Showing Up”/A24), plus other veterans whose films have yet to be acquired.
After the unlikely hits of “Drive My Car” and “Worst Person in the World,” distributors might be ready to take more risks. However, even the best films cannot solve the difficulties of the specialized market.