Despite Cool Cannes, Foreign Films Still in Distributors Spotlights
by Anthony Kaufman
If world auteurs were looking to get goosed from the recently wrapped 58th Cannes Film Festival, they'd better be patient. And the same goes for North American audiences hoping to catch those foreign gems. The number of official selection entries acquired for U.S. distribution during the festival could be counted on one hand: Michael Haneke's "Cache" (Sony Pictures Classics), Frenchman Christian Carion's "Merry Christmas" (Sony Pictures Classics) and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' "Battle in Heaven" (Tartan), whose acquisition was essentially already a done deal, as the company helped produce the picture. During the final days of the fest, there were also rumors that IFC Films picked up Lars von Trier's "Manderlay," but even so, it was a slow week. While the number of movies still in play is numerous, it could take weeks to see where they fall on North American release calendars, if at all.
Words like "quiet" and "cool" and "disappointed" emerged from the dispatches of journalists. Critics questioned the presence of "masterpieces." Film executives were prone to quip, "There really wasn't much to get excited about." As Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill told Anne Thompson in a much-debated Hollywood Reporter article, "You almost look at this year's competition films and don't have to worry about buying anything."
But that didn't stop the film community from trying. While earlier reports indicated that bigger players like Warner Indie, Fox Searchlight, Focus, and Lions Gate were too high-and-mighty to pursue the art-house esoterica playing in Cannes, acquisition executives from many of the larger companies made bids on Michael Haneke's "Cache," his psychological thriller about the return of a family-man's repressed past.
When asked whether Cannes has strictly become the domain of the indiest of companies, Dylan Leiner, executive VP of Sony Pictures Classics, which purchased "Cache," says, "Not at all. All of the companies you mentioned had either sincere interest or made aggressive offers on the two films we acquired. Haneke had twelve offers from North America and 'Merry Christmas' had many as well." While Leiner admits that the Cannes selection was "artistically driven, and proved often abstract commercially," he adds, "there is not a reluctance to buy foreign films" specifically.
Especially when it's a film like "Cache," buoyed by critics, made along familiar genre lines, starring recognizable faces (Juliet Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) and directed by a known commodity with a previous art-house hit (Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" made nearly $2 million in U.S. ticket sales.)
But "Cache" was the exception, not the rule. While the Weinsteins made announcements in the trades just about every day and bigwigs from the mini-majors took meetings at the Carlton, the bulk of Cannes' slate remains fodder for the smaller companies. As Palm Pictures' David Koh says, the festival offered films less suited "to the bigger labels, but a good amount for smaller labels like ours."
So what films did ignite passion among the micro-distribs? While not exactly art-house superstars, the Dardenne brothers' latest "The Child" is seen as more plot-driven than their last film "The Son" and has enough critical champions -- not to mention the help of the Palme d'Or -- to propel distribution Stateside. (Though I'd be surprised if a mini-major would ever step up to the plate again, as USA Films did when the Dardennes' previous "Rosetta" won the top prize at the 1999 fest.) And if you believe the critics, the other competition masterwork -- Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Three Times" -- was among the best films you'd find this year on the Cote d'Azur. But with auteur-friendly companies like Wellspring and Palm looking to restrict their output of more challenging titles, fans of the filmmaker may be better off seeking Region 2 DVDs.
By virtue of strong buzz and recognizable talent, a number of films in the Un Certain Regard program are piquing distributors' interest: French auteur Francois Ozon's latest "Le Temps qui reste" about a young photographer dying of cancer; Juan Solanas' "Nordeste," starring Carole Bouquet as a woman who travels to Argentina to adopt a baby; Brazilian director Sergio Machado's Youth Jury Prize winner "Lower City," a stylish, steamy love triangle between two friends and a prostitute set in Bahia; and Romanian director Cristi Puiu's darkly comic story of a man's hospitalizations "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," winner of the Un Certain Regard prize.
In Directors Fortnight, Emmanuel Carrere's twisted metaphysical comedy, "La Moustache," about the unsettling events that take place after a man removes his moustache, was also appreciated. In the Critics Week sidebar, the ultra-violent "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael," directed by British newcomer Thomas Clay, turned some heads, especially since Variety dubbed it -- along with "Battle in Heaven" -- "2005's Most Shocking Film in Cannes." And from the Cannes Market, distributors are circling "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," the story of nomadic Mongolian family and their dog from one of the directors of "The Story of the Weeping Camel."
Even for these "smaller films," says distributors, "It is much more competitive now than it was two years ago," explains David Koh. "Cannes does promote more foreign language films and I think lots of buyers look at foreign language films as a result."
But unlike Sundance, where hype and hungry audiences conspire to make films seem better than they are, Cannes produces a very different effect, according to Bob Myerson, a U.S. executive at Tartan. "I think that the Cannes audiences level the playing field, because they're so tough." Booing at screenings, for instance, is common practice at the Grand Palais.
"I think the learning curve continues with American audiences for foreign films," continues Myerson. "They're now starting to appreciate directors. In Cannes, people talk about the Reygadas, the Haneke, and I think American audiences are starting to catch up to that." Regarding their own release plans for the bold and experimental "Battle in Heaven," Myerson believes that the director's previous film "Japon" was such a stunner that art-house audiences will return. "I think people will want to see his next film," he says. "As a distributor, it's time we give American audiences the benefit of the doubt."