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May 8, 2017

How many Cannes-nominated films get a theatrical release?

The Cannes Film Festival kicks off next week, and at the centre of all the glitz and glamour is competition for the film world’s greatest artistic prize – the Palme d’Or.  This year, nineteen films are in the running including work by Michael Haneke, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes and Michel Hazanavicius.  The films will be screened over the festival’s eleven days, following which a jury of luminaries, headed by Pedro Almodóvar, will decide which film is worthy of walking away with the Palme d’Or.  

But once the festival is over, what happens to the Cannes-nominated films?  In Cannes gone by, I have met filmmakers whose work was being admired in the festival and who excitedly talked about the “inevitable” and “huge” theatrical release awaiting them.  The image that comes to mind is that of Olaf the snowman in Disney’s Frozen, joyfully singing about how much fun he’s going to have when the summer rolls around…

But rather than spending another Cannes cynically thinking that these people are wrong, I thought I’d take a look at what does happen to Cannes-nominated films once the festival is over.

How many Cannes-nominated films get a theatrical release?

I looked at all Cannes-nominated films that had competed on the Croisette between 1990 and 2016, inclusive.

I found that over the past three decades, the number of Cannes-nominated films reaching UK and US cinemas has increased.  In 1990, only 56% of such films were shown in UK cinemas and 67% reached US cinema audiences.  Compare that to 2015, when all of them reached US cinemas, and 84% made it to UK cinemas.

How long do we have to wait for Cannes-nominated films to reach cinemas?

Cannes prides itself on being a festival of world premieres, meaning that the first chance anyone gets to see the movie is during the official screenings.  This means that only 1.2% of Cannes-nominated films were released in commercial cinemas prior to their festival appearance.

The few that buck the trend include:

  • The Madness of King George opened in America on 28 December 1994, in the UK on 24 March 1995 and only appeared in Cannes during May 1995.
  • 24 Hour Party People was released commercially in the UK on 5 April 2002 and was screened a month later in Cannes.
  • Splitting Heirs was in the running for Cannes in May 1993 but had already been in UK cinemas from 2 April and in US cinemas from 30 April.

Once a film has been screened at Cannes, one may assume that it is ready to be released in commercial cinemas and that distributors will be keen to capitalise on the publicity Cannes brings by rushing the film to paying cinema audiences.  Therefore, it may come as surprise to learn that the average delay between Cannes and the US theatrical release for Cannes-nominated films was 286 days (or nine and half months). 

There may be a few reasons why such a large delay exists.  Firstly, when a film is screened at the Cannes Film Festival it has not previously been seen by anyone outside of the filmmakers and the Cannes selection team.  This means that they may not have time to shop it around to distributors in order to secure international distribution.  Secondly, once you know your film is going to compete at Cannes, it makes sense to wait and see how it is received before discussing the terms of any distribution deals.  Nobody wants to be the filmmaker who signed a bad deal weeks before winning the Palme d’Or, unable to use the win to increase their deal terms. Finally, as I’ve shown in previous research, there are regular patterns to when certain types of films are released throughout the year.  Therefore, it could be that some of these Cannes films are being held back strategically to align with awards season.

Whatever the reason, the delay has not changed much over the past few decades, despite huge shifts in distribution technology and release windows happening elsewhere in the industry. 

How wide is the theatrical run for Cannes-nominated films?

Finally, even if a film secures a US theatrical distribution deal, it may not be shown on many screens.  Across all of the films shortlisted in Cannes (1990-2016) which had a US release, the average number of screens at the widest point of release was 308.  For scale, last weekend Beauty and the Beast was shown on ten times as many screens, in its seventh week of release. 

But this average hides what’s really going on.  In truth, it’s a tale of two Cannes.  Some of the films screened In Competition at Cannes are from Hollywood studios, have commercial concepts and famous star actors, while most are not the type of films US cinema audiences flock to.  For example, Cannes gone by have screened Shrek, Shrek 2Inglourious Basterds, Sin CityZodiac, Moulin Rouge! and No Country for Old Men.

This split between ‘Hollywood’ and ‘the rest’ can be seen below.

Notes

My research today focused on films nominated at the twenty-seven Cannes Film Festivals between 1990 and 2016, inclusive. I used the Cannes official site to build up the dataset, IMDb and Wikipedia to find release dates and Box Office Mojo and The Numbers for screen data.

When calculating the delay in release dates, I worked from the last day of the festival and the first day of the movie’s theatrical release.  Cannes is typically eleven days long and most films will have been screened before the festival’s final day, but I don’t have enough data to be this specific for every film so I opted to count the “Cannes date” as the festival’s closing night.

When determining if and when a film had received a “theatrical release”, I did not include film festival screenings, nor the date of the premiere.  I focused on the film being available to the paying cinema public, even if it was only for a limited or small release. 

Epilogue

Sophie and Sam in CannesThis article will now be added to my ever-growing list of Cannes-focused content, including:

Have I missed something about the Cannes Film Festival and the Marché du Film that you want to know about?  If so, drop a note in the comments below or get in touch with me directly.

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3 Responses

  1. Jack Malvern May 8, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    Aha. I like the last graph. Do you have figures for UK cinemas too – more than half of Cannes-nominated films don’t get released in more than 50 screens. Do you have comparable figures for the UK?

    • Stephen Follows May 8, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

      Well spotted, Jack! I thought I’d get away with that omission.
      Sadly I have the relevant UK data in a very tricky format so it would take a while to do the same analysis for the UK as I did for the US.

  2. gomovies May 13, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

    Well great blog, and this article in particular highlighting that how much exposure does cannes fest movies get.

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