Previewing the 51st Cannes Film Festival -- The studios are shying away, but there are sure to be a few gems

What’s the difference between the French Riviera and your local multiplex? This year, not much. At the 51st Cannes Film Festival, May 13-24, there will be a healthy serving of popcorn along with the Bordeaux.

With the surprising news from Cannes chief Gilles Jacob that TriStar’s Godzilla will serve as the closing-night attraction, the prestigious film fete that in previous years shined a spotlight on Secrets & Lies, Pulp Fiction, The Piano, and Barton Fink is looking more like a 12-day trailer for this summer’s blockbusters.

If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re not alone — even Hollywood is shying away from Cannes this year. Don’t expect many major releases from Warner Bros. or Twentieth Century Fox. Paramount was considering sending The Truman Show, but Jim Carrey’s unavailability kept the Peter Weir-directed film home. Disney’s Touchstone will be previewing 60 minutes of its Bruce Willis-Ben Affleck asteroid crasher Armageddon. And Universal is sending a smattering of leftovers like Primary Colors (the opening-night selection), The Apostle, and Blues Brothers 2000.

Discerning filmgoers can still find quirky fare, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, starring Johnny Depp; Stanley Tucci’s mistaken-identity comedy The Imposters; Roland Joffe’s comic thriller Goodbye Lover, with Patricia Arquette, Dermot Mulroney, and Ellen DeGeneres; and possibly Apt Pupil, from director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), as well as the ’70s rock saga The Velvet Goldmine, with Ewan McGregor. But at press time, class acts from the studios aren’t making the trip. Why? Perhaps because loyalty has shifted to a certain other venue. ”When it comes to festivals,” says a top studio exec, ”Sundance has become a priority.” People go to Cannes, says another studio source, largely ”to placate filmmakers…. It’s become a big excuse to get a paid vacation.” Not to mention a look at those summer hits.