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Can ‘Furiosa’ Keep Warner Bros.’ Festival Hot Streak Alive?

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Ahead of the world premiere of George Miller’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga in Cannes, all eyes will be on Warner Bros. to see if the studio will again demonstrate its talent for using Europe’s A-list festivals to catapult its most challenging blockbusters to commercial success and critical acclaim. 

Warners has been here before. When Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road opened Cannes in 2015, few would have predicted that the relaunch of an ’80s-action franchise, and a film that had spent two decades in development hell, would tear up the Croisette en route to box office triumph ($380 million worldwide) and awards success (Fury Road would end up with 10 Oscar nominations, winning six). 

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Warners pulled off a similar trick four years later, bowing Todd Phillips’ Joker — an R-rated superhero movie from the director of The Hangover — at the Venice Film Festival. Most observers were predicting disaster, expecting Joker, which combined elements of the DC comic source material with the style of Martin Scorsese’s ’70s indie cinema classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, would be rejected both by superhero fans and the Venice art house crowd. 

It was the opposite. The very artsy Venice jury, headed by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman), gave Joker the Golden Lion for best film, and audiences were mad for it. Budgeted at around $55 million-$70 million, Joker would go on to earn a massive $1.08 billion worldwide. It had a similarly successful awards run, ending with two Oscars, including best actor for Joaquin Phoenix as the titular killer clown. 

Warners won’t be behind the launch of Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1 in Cannes — the studio is only doing domestic on Kevin Costner’s Western epic — but it’s a tribute to Warners’ promotional machine that the film’s French distributor, as well as the bulk of international buyers handling the film, have decided to match the studio’s release plans, going out day-and-date with Horizon on June 28 and Chapter 2 on Aug. 16. 

“They are the best at making films like this into an event,” says Daniel Baur of K5 International, which is handling the sales of Horizon outside North America, “which is why almost all of the international buyers are going day-and-date with the U.S. release for the first two films. They are creating a summer cinema event, like they did last year with Barbie.” 

Other studios use the big festivals as tentpole launchpads, but the films they send to Cannes and Venice tend to either be movies from directors with film fest pedigrees — Sony bringing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from Palme d’Or winner Quentin Tarantino to Cannes; Disney, via Searchlight Pictures, bowing Poor Things from art-house fave Yorgos Lanthimos in Venice — or audience-focused PR stunts aimed at generating red carpet photos and entertainment news coverage with no eye to appealing to festival critics (see Disney’s use of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in Cannes last year). 

Warners has been uniquely successful at threading the festival needle, using its promotional prowess to position the studio’s most artistically challenging blockbusters to best reap the combination of commercial success and critical acclaim. 

After Fury Road and Joker, Warners would do it again in Venice in 2021 with Dune, the ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose previous sci-fi epic, Blade Runner 2049, while a critical hit, was a commercial disaster for the studio. Blade Runner had a soft festival launch, bowing at the second-tier Montreal Film Festival, but for Dune, Warners doubled down on Villeneuve. The studio flew in the cast and crew for the festival, including stars Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet, creating a crowd-screaming sensation on the Lido that lit a fire under the film, helping it to its eventual $400 million-plus global gross. When the Oscars rolled around, Dune would end up with six trophies, matching Fury Road’s haul. 

Thanks to Fury Road’s success, prequel Furiosa arrives in Cannes with more of a runway, but it still presents some challenges for Warners. It’s the first Mad Max that can’t bank on the appeal of the titular hero of the first four films, and the studio is counting on Anya Taylor-Joy’s lead performance to make fans forget (or at least forgive) the absence of Fury Road star Charlize Theron.

“It could be a challenge appealing to the young male demographic, which is still the core audience for this franchise,” says one marketing executive (from a competing studio). “And I love Anya Taylor-Joy, but she’s no Charlize Theron, at least not when it comes to the international box office.”

This year on the Croisette, we’ll see if — and when — it comes to blending blockbuster spectacle with artistic integrity, Warners is still in a league of its own.

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