Pete Hammond

An HBO film? A VOD movie? Competing for the Palme d’Or, all seriously in one of the last bastions of pure cinema, the Cannes Film Festival‘s main competition? Oui!

With HBO’s Behind The Candelabra and Radius-TWC‘s Ryan Gosling-starrer Only God Forgives from Cannes darling Nicolas Winding Refn, a new day — and date — has dawned here. And in all these cases, huge movie stars who might not have considered anything but a traditional theatrical release and all the trimmings that go with that are suddenly here with projects that — while also possibly traveling the theatrical route, too — will simultaneously, or even first, be seen on smaller screens. This might have been considered sacreligious in the Cannes of old, but in this ever-changing film industry it’s the way of the future, at least partially.

HBO made a big splash Tuesday night with its extremely well-received Steven Soderbergh-directed movie Behind The Candelabra, the story of a very closeted Liberace and his relationship with a young man that has become one of the best-reviewed films here. Its Oscar-winning stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon hit the Palais Grand Theatre’s red carpet, won raves and immediate awards talk here, even though one person said of the film’s Palme d’Or chances, “I can’t imagine Cannes giving an award to an HBO movie”. Really? Well, who could have imagined Cannes, a few years ago, actually embracing HBO and letting it compete at the big table which is exactly what Candelabra is doing. Many observers here think Douglas is in fact the frontrunner for the Best Actor prize for his uncanny portrayal of the uber-flamboyant Liberace. I would go as far to say that Douglas and Damon, who plays his young lover Scott Thorson (the man who wrote the expose upon which the film is based), would easily have been nominated for Oscars had this gone theatrical instead of cable in America (it will be in theaters internationally). Instead the film, which HBO begins airing Sunday in the U.S., and its stars will just have to settle for sweeping the Emmys, as it most likely will do. That it also represents what Steven Soderbergh says is his final film for the foreseeable future could actually increase his Palme d’Or chances in my view, perhaps as a message that he shouldn’t quit so soon. How ironic that no major studio or distributor wanted the film when it was initially pitched. But HBO jumped at the chance. Douglas for one is extremely grateful. He even had to hold back tears and got very choked up trying to thank his colleagues during the Cannes press conference yesterday for waiting for him while he underwent his cancer treatments.

So as their movie hits TV screens in America, could Soderbergh or his film be winning a prize in Cannes the same day? Stranger things have happened, but that would be a first.

But the lines have clearly been blurred and as Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn told me after this morning’s press conference for Only God Forgives, “cinema is everywhere now. This (day and date with on demand services) is how this film should be released, to bring the widest possible audience to the film”. And he expects it to be Radius’ biggest movie this year, a noticeable step forward in the emerging acceptance of mutual VOD/theatrical rollouts as a viable piece of the pie. It should really be tested this time since Gosling (who is not in Cannes because of a film he is currently directing in Detroit) is arguably so far the biggest movie-star name to go day and date. Radius has also been making a lot of noise on the acquisitions front in the market, picking up Directors’ Fortnight contender Blue Ruin and the Keanu Reeves directing debut Man Of Tai Chi.

At the American Pavillion State Of The Indie Panel I moderated here Monday, Quinn acknowledged the difficulty with exhibition’s embrace of VOD but is confident it will be accepted everywhere — and soon. Releasing a Gosling action film in the middle of summer, directed by one of the hottest helmers out there, will be a “game changer”. At least that’s the hope for the 90-minute, fairly arty but extremely violent film that drew applause and some boos at its first press screening in Cannes this morning. Of course, 8:30 AM might have been a little early for some to take the sight of seeing a man tortuously gouging another guy’s eyes out. Refn described the film as a combination of “mysticism, reality and spirituality” although he was challenged on that by at least one journalist who said she saw only violence on screen and not the deeper meanings Refn said he was inspired to explore in the story. The plot is set in Bangkok and is about a man ordered by his mother to seek revenge for the death of his older brother. That mother, played to the hilt by Kristin Scott-Thomas, is a real scene-stealer, and if voters with queasy stomachs can get beyond all the blood and gore, she will get a supporting Oscar nomination for her against-type work here. The actress said this is not the kind of film that appeals to her and doesn’t go to violent movies, but once she came on board it was something she was very glad he did. As Refn pointed out, “she had no problem turning on the bitch switch”.

Both Scott-Thomas and Refn were also asked about the new opportunities in television and both said it excites them; there is no stigma attached to the small screen for either. Said Scott-Thomas: “It’s nice for actors because more people see it. You can spend weeks and weeks making a film that very few people will see and that’s sort of discouraging. But you can do some really great television, and there is great television. It’s very satisfying to know millions watch something. It’s as simple as that.”

In fact at IMDb’s annual Cannes dinner Monday, Refn told me that when Gaumont asked him to remake the 1968 sci-fi cult classic Barbarella, he said he would, “but I told them I wouldn’t do it as a movie, only a TV series”. He is bringing in top writers like Neal Purvis to help him with it. He thinks TV is a better medium for all the ideas he has for this project. Barbarella been sold in many territories, but Refn says they will soon start to find a U.S network for it too. It’s still up for grabs in the States.

Certainly HBO might be a possibility considering the Cannes-do attitude they have been sporting lately. After bringing Hemingway & Gellhorn here out of competition last year, and of course the aforementioned triumph of Candelabra this year, the pay cabler made further news by picking up another project from the 2013 official selection: It will air director James Toback and Alec Baldwin’s wryly funny documentary Seduced And Abandoned about this festival that they shot here last year. (When HBO Films had its theatrical division it won the Palme d’Or in 2003 for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). It really lifts the veil in a very funny way on the dealmaking and makers that goes on here every year, but also turns into an eye-opening account of the state of the movie business. It contains priceless interviews and stories from the likes of Roman Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci, a hilarious Avi Lerner and Francis Ford Coppola among many others.

Coppola tells a great tale I had never heard about getting so mad he took his five Oscars and threw them to the ground breaking them into pieces. He says his mother went to the Academy to get them replaced by saying the housekeeper broke them while dusting. Gosling is also in the film offering a brilliantly funny and succinct description of what a struggling actor’s life is really like. At the premiere after-party on the Lady Joy yacht, Toback told me HBO is the perfect place to land for his Cannes expose — even though it was possibly envisioned as a theatrical. “I gave it to them and they made a very generous offer. They bought it right away, four days after I gave them the DVD we had a deal”, he said. “You can’t reach a reliable audience anymore with sort of the IFC/Magnolia distribution pattern. You just can’t do it. I’m very excited. Two things happened: One, the movie worked out as well as I possibly could have hoped and two, we got the best place for it which is hardly ever the case. I’ve often made the movie I wanted to make and then been stuck with a distribution that was frustrating beyond comprehension”.

And now the times, even in the competition in Cannes, are changin’ indeed.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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