By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire May 13, 2008 at 7:19AM
Rainy skies and industry-wide gloom-and-doom hover over this year's Cannes, but the nearly 11,000 registrants attending this year's festival and Market can't all be depressed. With thousands of new films on offer, from auteur visions to star-driven genre pictures, and hundreds of distributors in need of product, the supply-and-demand business of Cannes must go on. Along the Cote d'Azur Tuesday, in fact, the dreary weather finally broke to reveal sunny skies.
Still, industry veterans are lamenting significant changes in the film industry landscape: The falling DVD market and decreasing value of TV deals around the world; the rising cost of releasing and marketing movies; the overall competitiveness of the arena; and the changing entertainment habits of a younger generation, who prefer "Grand Theft Auto IV" to "Speed Racer."
"There's a litany of factors that affect what buyers are willing to pay for movies," said The Film Department International's Steve Bickel, who is bringing six new films to this year's Marche du Film, including Bart Freundlich's "The Rebound," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, and "The Beautiful and the Damned," a Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald bio-pic, co-starring Keira Knightly. "The numbers are not as aggressive as they used to be."
"There is some turmoil in the U.S. marketplace that potentially will impact a lot of what happens here," agreed Fortissimo Film Sales' Michael Werner. But Werner is buoyant about other overseas territories. "We are actually coming into this market having sold more to France than we ever have before in a similar time frame," he said.
Many sellers note that markets in Spain, Latin America and Japan have grown increasingly selective because of a rise in local product, but they also try to remain upbeat. As Bickel said, "There will always be a market and the buyers will always be there."
Indeed, for high-profile films with name casts and marketable elements, there remains no shortage of avid shoppers. Films in competition by known filmmakers and starring recognizable faces, such as James Gray's "Two Lovers," Steven Soderbergh's epic twofer "Che," and Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut "Synecdoche, New York," have already sold in most countries across the world, while U.S. distributors remain in hot pursuit.
And yet North American buyers are trepidacious, with apparent good reason. Last year, Gray's crime drama "We Own the Night" was bought at Cannes for a reported $11.5 million, and grossed only $28.6 million after a major studio launch. Charlie Kaufman's U.S. grosses have been healthy, but not break-out, and Soderbergh's passion projects have been wild cards at the domestic box-office.
U.S. companies are hoping that such films' price tags are more in keeping with what they see as "a higher degree of uncertainty about the domestic distribution landscape," said Overture Films' Danny Rosett. "Sundance was a real eye-opener. Maybe now there'll be a better understanding and better partnership between the buyers and the sellers."
But Cinetic Media's John Sloss said, "Buyers are smelling blood in the water and trying to take advantage of it." He believes the business is as robust as ever and last fall's art-house glut shows how much money has been flooding into the film market. "It's ludicrous," he said, of buyer's attempts to constrain costs. "Look at the average acquisition price for a studio specialty division and compare that with their average production budget."
"It's the job of the distributor to moan and complain about the state of the market to help drive down the price," agreed Focus International's Alison Thompson. "I remind them they've done pretty well with our last two movies, so the minimum guarantee for the new title should remain the same or even increase."
Many in the industry are sorry to see Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures vanish, as well, with Time Warner's recent downsizing of the two specialty arms as symptom of the sector's troubled times. But the disappearance of the two companies may alleviate some pressure on the much-bottlenecked art-house market.
Meanwhile, New Line's assimilation into its parent company could create new international opportunities for mid-to-larger budget films, as foreign buyers look to fill up their slates.
Market titles in various stages of production that could rack up major sales include, among others, Terrence Malick's sci-fi drama "Tree of Life" (being sold by Summit), Lukas Moodysson's English-language debut "Mammoth" (Trust Film Sales), Stephen Frears' World War I love story "Cheri" (Pathe International), Miguel Arteta's "Youth in Revolt" (Weinstein International), Andrew Jarecki's "All Good Things" (Weinstein International), and Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" (Cinetic).
Focus International's Alison Thompson also expects a healthy market, with 80-90% sell-outs for its starry auteur slate, which includes Gus Van Sant's "Milk," the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man," Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" and an untitled romantic comedy from Sam Mendes.
"Distribution models have evolved," said Thompson, "these days, most successful companies have a variety of films on their slate; they will have the latest Pedro Almodovar film sitting comfortably alongside a Jennifer Aniston comedy. It's all about diversity."
"The reality is that they may not expect to do blockbuster business with some of these movies," continued Thompson, "but people are still proud to have them, because they bring quality to their slate and many distributors have longterm relationships with these directors."
Visit Films' Ryan Kampe, who is selling, among others, Azazel Jacob's Sundance critics favorite "Momma's Man" and Josh Safdie's Directors Fortnight closer, "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," is also staying optimistic and betting on bargain hunters who want a more eclectic slate. "The buyers for the smaller American indies are coming back," he said, referring to a variety of companies in Australia, the UK, France and Brazil who have taken "risks on good but challenging films."
While Kampe acknowledges TV sales are becoming increasingly rare and the death of the DVD is the number one concern for his buyers, he believes his company is "well positioned to transition to the digital age," he said. "[We] are pushing distributors to understand the future value of the download."
[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this report from Cannes.]
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