Hollywood Does Cannes

As the Cannes Film Festival organizers see it, "Moulin Rouge" was made for them. What could be more perfect for opening night than a big, splashy period musical based on France's famed Pigalle cabaret? Even better, screening the film would mean getting sexy stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor to walk up the famous red-carpeted steps. The only problem: "Moulin Rouge" is an important Hollywood production. How would Cannes's organizers ever persuade the film's studio executives to bring it to the Croisette, where Hollywood movies are routinely trashed by France's fickle press corps? "Cannes is a costly investment for studios, and the critics are harsh," says Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for Variety. "The studios have to be massaged and seduced."

Thierry Fremaux understood that. The new artistic director of the festival flew out to Los Angeles twice last winter to meet "with the majors," as he puts it, and "smooth out the difficulties" that have long plagued the Hollywood-Cannes relationship. Thanks to his charm and determination, the $50 million "Moulin Rouge" will indeed open the world's most famous film festival this week. But Fremaux, 40, didn't stop there. He also snagged another potential studio blockbuster: DreamWorks' "Shrek," a fractured fairy tale--and the first animated movie in Cannes competition since Disney's "Peter Pan" back in 1953.

In fact, a close look at the rest of the line-up makes it clear that this year's Cannes offering is the most Hollywood-heavy selection in a decade. Also on tap are Joel Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't There," David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" and Sean Penn's "The Pledge," starring Jack Nicholson. Out-of-competition screenings will include Francis Ford Coppola's "final version" of "Apocalypse Now," Abel Ferrara's "R-Xmas" and Hal Hartley's "No Such Thing"--as well as a tribute to "Working Girl's" Melanie Griffith. Says Fremaux, "We have to acknowledge that Cannes must present films that have the potential to do well at the box office."

Since when? In its 54-year history, Cannes has certainly premiered a number of Hollywood movies that became huge popular hits, including "M*A*S*H" and Steven Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." But under the guidance of Fremaux's predecessor, Gilles Jacob, Cannes became renowned for its preference for small, independent--and often obscure--pictures. Jacob won kudos for promoting the films of developing countries such as China and Iran and supporting young talents including Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. But many of his choices, like Palme d'Or winners "The Eel," by Japanese director Shohei Imamura, and Belgian Luc Dardenne's "Rosetta," went largely unseen by the public. By the time he stepped down in 1999 after more than 20 years on the job, Jacob was coming under fire from the commercial-film community for often selecting films for competition that were inaccessible, uneven and made by the same small clique of art-house filmmakers.

Since then, the filmmaking landscape has changed dramatically--not only at Cannes headquarters but in the French film community as well. Last year, Vivendi, the French communications and environmental-services corporation, acquired Seagram, owner of Universal, one of Hollywood's "seven sister" studios. The deal instantly catapulted the French players into the big league. "It's a new era" for French cinema, declared Daniel Toscan du Plantier, president of Unifrance, the French film association, in Variety. "For once, the French film industry has made a strong decision not to play games with Hollywood but to get inside Hollywood."

The move created a detente between France's fussy cinema auteurs and their commercially minded American counterparts. Now other French film companies, such as Pathe, are also discussing possible mergers with Hollywood studios. The French government has softened its stance on the trade and tariff rules that restrict the number of "foreign" (i.e., American) movies released in France, realizing, as Toscan du Plantier put it, that "we have to deal more with the world." And by hiring Fremaux, an American-movie buff and head of the Institut Lumiere, the French national film archives, Cannes's organizers are sending Hollywood a staunch ally. "Hollywood studio executives haven't had anyone to talk to face to face in years," says McCarthy. "Thierry has made a vigorous effort to meet agents, managers and studio heads. He's putting a human face on the festival from a Hollywood point of view, and it's very refreshing."

Just ask Jeffrey Katzenberg. The cofounder of DreamWorks met in January with Fremaux, who requested a copy of the studio's latest project, "Shrek." After screening it in Paris, Fremaux called Katzenberg in California. "He said it was an extraordinary piece of entertainment and of cinema--not words I was expecting to hear," Katzenberg told NEWSWEEK. "After years of not expecting to hear things like that, when you do, it's quite surprising."

It's been a long time coming. Jacob had not visited Hollywood in years and lost touch with the studios. As a result, his requests for important movies like Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" were routinely turned down by studio executives. When Jacob stepped down as artistic director, he took over as the festival's president--and eventually hired Fremaux. Though it was Jacob's idea to have "Moulin Rouge" as the opening picture, Fremaux made it happen. He met personally with Fox executives in Los Angeles. "He had such an enthusiastic reaction, and the timing was perfect, so we said, 'Let's do it!' " recalls Jim Giano- pulos, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox. "Thierry truly loves film. You can see his delight and appreciation in everything he does."

Besides wooing Hollywood, Fremaux has made other changes to Cannes. He's cut the number of professional accreditations for the festival and increased the number of films screened by a third, to 1,789, to give as many filmmakers as possible a chance to compete. He's also gently changing the sidebar, "Un Certain Regard," from a place to dump movies that weren't good enough for competition into a showcase for experimental works. And he's added an open-air screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie of Montmartre"-- a critically lauded French film that Jacob rejected last January--for fans who descend on the sunny seaside resort for the weekend. "I want to rediscover that sense of festiveness," says Fremaux. "I want it to be about people who love cinema." How could Hollywood argue with that?