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by Anthony Kaufman
April 11, 2006 11:28 AM
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Spring Loaded: A Harvest of New Films at Vernal Fests

A scene from "Perhaps Love," which will open the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival. Photo provided by the San Francisco International Film Festival

Spring is here, and with it comes a bountiful array of new films hitting this season's festivals. While San Francisco and Tribeca share a morsel of brand new documentaries and fiction from around the world, Cannes' grand Festival International du Film (beginning May 17) offers a major banquet of new movies from both up-and-comers and world-class masters.

While Cannes's lineup isn't made official until next Thursday, rumors are already circulating, with veterans Pedro Almodovar, Marco Bellochio, Aki Kaurismaki, Nanni Moretti and Ken Loach already slated for top spots and new American films from John Cameron Mitchell, Richard Linklater, and Darren Aronofsky set to premiere, as well. And with indie distributors starved for new product after a lackluster winter market, this season's spring festivals could be one of the busiest in years.

First out of the gate is San Francisco International, which kicks off on April 20 with Peter Chan's lush musical extravaganza "Perhaps Love," which has already made its way from Venice to Palm Springs. Light on world premieres, especially compared to Tribeca's 90 groundbreakers, San Francisco isn't exactly a market, but the program is strong on Asian fare that has yet to find exposure in the West.

North American premieres include Daniel Yu's Andy Lau starrer "All About Love," Park Jin-Pyo's melodrama "You Are My Sunshine," first-timer Takushi Tsubokawa's "Clouds of Yesterday," Yasmin Ahmad's Malaysian melodrama "Gubra," Raya Martin's Philippine feature "A Short Film About The Indio Nacional," and Ying Liang's popular Rotterdam debut "Taking Father Home" (also playing in Tribeca).

"We put a particular emphasis on Asia and have had a particularly good harvest this year," says SFIFF's new executive director Graham Leggat, who credits veteran Asian programming consultant Roger Garcia for bringing in many of the titles.

San Francisco and Tribeca share several films, but despite the close dates of the events (Tribeca begins five days later), filmmakers and festivals found a way to work together. "They're obliged to be in the spot and we are, too: the post-Berlin, pre-Cannes, before summer slot," says Tribeca Fest executive director Peter Scarlet, who used to run San Francisco for many years. "It's not like we're lobbing shells across the continent," he continues. "We worked it out."

New documentaries like Eric Steel's "The Bridge," a poignant and morbidly fascinating look at San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge suicides -- many shockingly captured on film while they were happening -- will world premiere in New York, ironically, just days before showing in San Francisco.

"They felt it made sense for their marketing campaign," says Leggat, who adds that San Francisco doesn't demand U.S. premieres for their competition titles, so they can freely accommodate Tribeca films. "We don't have that same kind of pressure," he says with some relief. "It's not cutthroat here."

Tribeca also edged out San Francisco by a matter of days for the world premieres of "Beyond the Call," a documentary about three intrepid American humanitarian aid workers from filmmaker Adrian Belic ("Genghis Blues"), "Encounter Point," Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha's look at Israeli and Palestinian families, and acclaimed doc director Stanley Nelson's latest PBS project "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple."

Tribeca's world-premiere pull has increased as it cultivates itself as a place for the industry to converge on the way to Cannes. Sales agents are more gung-ho than ever, hoping to lure buyers into a bidding-war environment in Lower Manhattan. "When I see the level of films that are coming through," says one seller, "it's reasonable to expect that you're going to see more deals this year."

While TFF 2005 saw the purchase of "Transamerica" by The Weinstein Co., skeptical buyers are quick to remember that Duncan Tucker's film didn't premiere in Tribeca, but actually showed in Berlin first.

Tribeca may be hosting its biggest number of world premieres yet, but most of the films in the event's international competition are not - a sure sign that programmers preferred more curated quality to newness in the section. Potential winners here include recent Malaga fest standout "The Mist in the Palm Trees," Argentina's already celebrated anti-war drama "Blessed by Fire," and recent Berlin favorite Matthias Glasner's provocative "The Free Will." (Notably, the international competition features no Chinese pictures, which have taken Tribeca's top jury prize the last three years in a row.)

This year's TFF lineup features plenty of star-studded available titles that acquisition execs say they'll be targeting, such as the Colin Hanks surveillance thriller "Alone With Her," "Lonely Hearts," which stars Salma Hayek and Jared Leto as the "honeymoon killers" and "Manito" director Eric Eason's "Journey to the End of the Night," with Brendan Fraser, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Mos Def. But will these world premieres turn out to be as commercial (or well-conceived) as they sound on paper?

If not, the Cannes Film Festival's nearly 60-year history presents a more reliable measure of programming acumen. While many sellers were reluctant to go on the record with their potential entries before the official announcement, Fortissimo Film Sales's Wouter Barendrecht told indieWIRE that he hoped to have John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," Hungarian filmmaker Gyorgy Palfi's "Taxidermia," Paul Goldman's Australian black comedy "Suburban Mayhem," and Taiwanese auteur Tian Zhuanghzuang's "The Go Master" in this year's selection.

Other films tipped for competition, according to previously published trade reports, include "Climates," by acclaimed Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan ("Distant"), "Selon Charlie," from French actress-turned director Nicole Garcia ("Place Vendome") and "Hana" by Japanese favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda ("Nobody Knows").

There is also talk of several other world premieres, including the Danish animated revenge fantasy "Princess," Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory," about North Africans fighting for the French in World War II, Chinese filmmaker Wang Chao's third feature "Luxury Car" and German director Volker Schloendroff's chronicle of Poland's Solidarity movement "The Heroine."

But the nooks and crannies of world cinema are a tough sell in the U.S. market these days. If Cannes' slate is high on quality, it's not necessarily big on films that will play in the U.S. market.

Last year, only two films were acquired during the Cannes festival (Sony Pictures Classics picked up Michael Haneke's "Cache" and French Oscar nominee "Merry Christmas"). Slowly, but surely, other films at Cannes 2005 have found their way to North American distributors - such as Dominik Moll's "Lemming" (Strand), Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Three Times" (IFC), "Where the Truth Lies" (ThinkFilm), Amos Gitai's "Free Zone" (New Yorker) and Francois Ozon's "Time to Leave" - but many more have been abandoned.

U.S. acquisition execs remain chilly towards foreign language films, which could bear out in Cannes again this year. One acquisition executive notes a recent Cannes prizewinner that made a healthy $2 million at the U.S. box office only made $250,000 on home video and DVD - it's challenging numbers like these that keep distributors wary even at a place that shows, arguably, the best films the world has to offer.

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