While Americans were busy collectively coughing up over $140 million to see Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End this Memorial Day weekend (because nothing says “Thank you for your sacrifice military guys!” like another bloated, flaccid Jerry Bruckheimer movie, right?), the Cannes International Film Festival jury awarded the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, to the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The film, which takes place in the waning years of Communist rule in Romania, tells the story of two university students who share a flat together, one of whom helps the other seek and obtain an illegal abortion.
Most people probably haven’t heard of the film, and fewer still will probably see it in this country. Not counting last year (The Wind that Shakes the Barley is still in theatres so far making about $1.5 million), winners of the Palme d’Or since 1996 have raked in something in the ballpark of $160 million in the USA. If you subtract 2004’s winner, Michael Moore’s controversial and successful documentary Farhenheit 9/11, you’re left with something like $40 million, less than what Pirates 3 made on the single day of Friday, May 25th (Box office figures from Box Office Mojo).
It’s probably safe to say that, in a week or two, more people will remember Jerry Seinfeld in a bee suit or George Clooney’s kiss being auctioned off at an AIDS benefit for $350,000 than will remember who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and for the rest of the summer, box office tallies will continue to receive breathless coverage. When 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is finally released in the United States, I’m guessing it will make somewhere in the neighborhood of 2005 winner L’Enfant‘s $650,000. A drop in the bucket to be sure, but what does that mean?
Does it mean the French are snobs and that Cannes is irrelevant? Not exactly. Does it mean Americans are stupid and that our movie audiences have no standards? Not necessarily. To me it simply means that the measure of success is broken. The fact that Pirates 3 raked in $140 million means a lot of people decided to go see it this weekend, nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t mean it was a good movie (maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t), and it doesn’t even mean most of the people who saw it actually enjoyed themselves, but the horse race aspect of box office reporting seems to imply just those things. Unless you own stock in Disney, why should you care how much Pirates 3 makes? Why does this news litter the entertainment section instead of the business section where it belongs?
Certain movies are tailored to be attractive to as many different kinds of people as possible: Kids, adults, men and women. Fortunes are spent marketing these movies and more often than not, it’s money well spent. Despite mediocre reviews and word of mouth, Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 have all been big openers, but who cares?
One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog was as a response to the fact that far too much time is spent talking about gossip and box office grosses when talking about movies and not enough time is spent talking about the movies themselves. This isn’t an anti-Pirates rant. It isn’t a complaint about the sorry state of cinema these days. It’s simply a call for a little perspective on what is really important and a reminder that there is a whole wonderful world of cinema out there beyond the walls of the local multiplex. Do yourself a favor and seek out The Wind that Shakes the Barley, or when 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days comes to town, remember where you heard about it and considering going and having a look. If these films don’t play where you live, why not throw L’Enfant into your Netflix queue? What have you got to lose?