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Cannes Provides the Best Films and the Worst Box Office — 2022 Could Change That

Cannes 2021 provided some of the year's best films and some of the worst box-office returns. Here's why this year's festival could be different.

“The Worst Person in the World”

Neon

After the Cannes cancellation of 2020 and the delay of 2021, the 2022 Official Selection reflects a return to normal: a balance of class (potential for high quality) and crass (potentially strong financial afterlife). Last year was another story: Cannes produced an excellent lineup that American audiences largely ignored.

Much of that came down to timing. COVID postponed last year’s Cannes to July 2021 and, after Cannes being canceled altogether in 2020, there was a backlog of excellent titles waiting for their moment on the Croisette. However, studio films were all but absent; their distributors didn’t have much interest in spending to promote their titles in July.

Led by “Drive My Car,” the films of Cannes 2021 showed unprecedented dominance in year-end critics’ surveys, including four of the top six in the IndieWire critics’ poll, four of the top five from Sight and Sound, and six of the top 10 at Cahiers du Cinema.

Despite the films’ elevated pedigrees, the financials for Cannes 2021 rank near the bottom. The stats on U.S./Canada distribution were excellent: Of the 24 Official Competition entries, 18 received domestic release or will shortly. Only Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight) grossed much more than million. It did $16.1 million after its October 22 release — a credible figure in theater-challenged times, but also the fewest tickets sold for any Anderson film since debut, “Bottle Rocket.”

Cannes premiere titles “Stillwater” (Focus) and Japanese animated “Belle” (GKIDS) grossed $14.5 million and $4 million, respectively. Two others passed $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 winner “Titane” (Neon) and “Red Rocket” (A24) otherwise passed $1 million.

DRIVE MY CAR, (aka DORAIBU MAI KA), from left: Reika Kirishima, Hidetoshi Nishijima, 2021. © Janus Films / courtesy Everett Collection

“Drive My Car”

2021. © Janus Films / courtesy Everett Collection

Compare that to 2019 when the Korean-language “Parasite” grossed $53 million. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” made $142 million. Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” grossed $4.5 million, and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” made $3.7 million (a gross truncated by COVID). The out-of-competition “Rocketman” made $96 million. Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” from Directors’ Fortnight, made over $10 million. In 2018, the Polish film “Cold War” and Japan’s “Shoplifters” each grossed over $3 million.

Of course, distribution has changed a lot since 2018. Even with substandard grosses, it’s possible that the 2021 returns improved with VOD play and sales to streamers. Of course, without reporting it’s impossible to gauge for certain.

In France, where nearly every Cannes competition title gets released, it was a relatively weak year for French theatrical play. “The French Dispatch” also was top draw there ($3.7 million). Cannes’ closing-night title, “O.S.S. 117: From Africa with Love” (unreleased in the U.S.), grossed $13.3 million.

Cannes 2021 enthusiasm didn’t always translate to the real world: Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” was no breakout; Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” stalled at under $400,000. Leos Carax’s “Annette” mainly showed on Amazon, with its limited theatrical results unreported. Even in France, none broke into the top 20 for 2021.

Some of the most elevated 2021 competition titles fell flat in the U.S. Sean Penn’s “Flag Day” (United Artists) couldn’t reach $500,000. “Bergman Island” (IFC), which had a same-day VOD release, did only $145,000. “Compartment Number 6” (Sony Pictures Classics) fell short of $200,000.

Elvis

“Elvis”

Warner Bros./screencap

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). Competition includes titles from directors with prior specialized 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), along with other veterans whose films have not yet been acquired.

After the unlikely successes of “Drive My Car” and “Worst Person in the World,” distributors could be willing to take more chances However, even the best films can’t solve the struggles of the specialized market.

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