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Market Highs and Lows: Considering the Biz Side of Cannes

Market Highs and Lows: Considering the Biz Side of Cannes

In the lobby of iconic Carlton Hotel in Cannes last week an apparently wealthy festival visitor was waiting patiently for someone. After a bit of pacing he found the person he was meeting. It was one of the fake local paparazzi who stalk well-dressed folks while they are walking along the Croisette during the festival.

“Are you making good business?” the customer, wearing a suit, asked the photographer, taking out a wallet and paying the photographer 200 euros in cash.

“Yes, it’s fine,” the casually dressed paparazzo said, pausing before adding, “It’s not fantastic.”

With that they thanked each other and the tourist went back upstairs while the photographer stuffed the cash into his pocket and headed back out into the warm, sunny day.

That quick transaction in the lobby of the Carlton wasn’t the only deal-making happening in Cannes last week, although, just as the young photographer said of business in Cannes this year, by most accounts it wasn’t fantastic.

Market in Focus

“We’re still here,” summed up Focus Features CEO James Schamus, “And so are our partners around the globe.”

James Schamus and Andrew Karpen in Cannes. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

“People survived,” Schamus said of the mood during this year’s Cannes Film Festival and its market, the Marche du Film. In the wake of the economic crisis, many companies failed or dramatically cut back. Last year in Cannes, many were in shock. But, at the festival this year, James Schamus sat alongside Focus president Andrew Karpen on the deck of the company’s Croisette office and told indieWIRE, “People are starting to feel there is a pulse.”

It was a busy week for Focus and its international sales business. The division was handling a number of fest titles, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu “Biutiful,” Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” and more.

Winnie Lau from Fortissimo Films, the international sales company, said that there seemed to be a more optimistic sensibility among buyers in Cannes this year, but she noted, “Acquisition budgets are modest.” She added that she noticed less of a focus on the festival’s competition titles and a greater emphasis on bigger budget English language independent titles. Concluding the thoughts, she spoke of an overall improvement in the market this year, with modest pre-sales.

“Distributors are really careful about their choices,” offered Sebastien Chesneau, the head of international sales for sales company Rezo. “It takes a bit more time for a film to be acquired. When a film would have been picked up right after the first screening a few years ago, it eventually happens a couple of days later.”

This year, Chesneau quickly sold one film in particular, Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats,” to IFC Films for a U.S. release.

Inside the Rezo office in Cannes. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

“More and more distributors concentrate on a very limited number of films,”Chesneau added, “Lots of titles from the various [sections of Cannes] won’t actually get a home for a release.”

A trend noted by Kino Lorber co-president & CEO Richard Lorber, a Cannes veteran, is the striking shift to genre fare with any number of outlets, in his words, “Grasping and gasping for genre.”

“The whole film business grew spectacularly on the back of video genre fare,” Lorber noted, “And just as so many companies hedged if not hitched their fortunes to action, horror, erotica on the way up, they’re suddenly groping for the same lifeline on video’s [headed on the ]way down.” His company acquired Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” at the festival this year.

“It’s tricky to get the art house-genre crossover right,” he cautioned, “And many will fail in their opportunism.”

“The market didn’t seem as robust and the festival selection itself was somewhat underwhelming,” noted Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions for U.S. distribution company Magnolia Pictures. His company, which has established the Magnet arm for genre films, bought Quentin Dupieux’s “Rubber” for its release slate.  

“The business of buying films is ongoing, constant, year round, and definitely not confined to a market or festival anymore,” added Quinn. “That combined with a shrinking pool of available productions will probably force top tier festivals to re-evaluate expectations and slate requirements.”

(A Few) Busy Buyers

As has been the case at a number of markets recently, Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, American distribution deal-making was dominated by just a few companies. Namely IFC, Sony Classics and Magnolia. IFC and Sony nabbed a number of titles, while Magnolia sealed a deal in France and is expected to make more.

IFC Films

The IFC Films team screened a number of Cannes titles in Paris the week before the festival and moved quickly to close deals once they got to Cannes.

Hanging out at the Grand Hotel in Cannes (left to right): IFC’s Jeff Deutchman, Bingham Ray, Goldwyn’s Peter Goldwyn and IFC’s Arianna Bocco. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Abbas Kiarostami “Certified Copy”, a study of a strained relationship by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, stars Cannes best actress winner (Juliette Binoche) as a woman coming to terms with the state of her marriage in Tuscany. IFC swiftly acquired the film in Cannes and it went on to be one of the most acclaimed narrative entries in the festival with a B+ grade on indieWIRE’s criticWIRE survey of critics and bloggers. Of course, it will be interesting to see if IFC mounts an awards season campaign for Binoche in the wake of her Cannes best actress prize. (Last year they scored Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” for which Charlotte Gainsbourg earned a best actress award at the French festival.)

Even higher ranked on the indieWIRE survey was Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos,” which the company acquired with sister outlet Sundance Channel ahead of the festival. From “Carlos” backer StudioCanal, the company also secured a deal for U.S. rights to Bertrand Tavernier’s “The Princess of Montpensier.”

Also in Cannes, IFC bought a pair of films about young folks by a pair of acclaimed established and emerging Queer filmmakers, namely Gregg Araki’s latest, “Kaboom” and Xavier Dolan’s second feature in two years, “Heartbeats”. The company also bought Jorge Michel Grau’s “We Are What We Are.”

At dinner on Friday night in Antibes, IFC’s acqusitions head Arianna Bocco was high on the company’s acquisitions during the festival this year. Worn out by two weeks of movie-going and meetings, she had good things to say about the festival and its selection, clearly pleased with the pacts she’s signed in France.

“We’re done with our Cannes buying,” Arianna Bocco said. Then, pausing for a moment, she checked herself, adding, “For now.” While IFC had closed the door on its deal-making in Cannes, it’s clear that with some 100+ distribution slots to fill this year, they’ll pursue more deals for fest films.

Sony Pictures Classics

Busy in Cannes showcasing upcoming films and buying new ones, Sony Pictures Classics unveiled the world premiere of Charles Ferguson’s doc about the recent economic crisis, “Inside Job”, a film that the company financed. Completed just in time for Cannes, it was a top rated title on indieWIRE’s criticWIRE survey, scoring a strong ‘A-‘ grade.

Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard with Cannes festival head Thierry Fremaux, “Inside Job” director Charles Ferguson and SPC co-president Michael Barker at the festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Sony also launched Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe” and Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” at the fest. But, the company’s big news was Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” the competition entry that scored with critics and bloggers (it has a ‘B+’ on criticWIRE) and was the buzz film of the first half of Cannes (before “Carlos” screened at the fest’s midpoint), they also proudly hyped the acquisition of Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men”, winner of the Grand Prize runner-up award at this year’s festival.

The French title, about a group of French Christian monks living in harmony with Muslim brothers, quietly stirred buzz at the festival (and earned a ‘B’ grade on criticWIRE). Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker was quite happy in the wake of Sunday’s awards ceremony in Cannes, noting that SPC’s “A Prophet” won the same award in Cannes last year.

At breakfast on Friday morning, Sony’s Michael Barker had good things to say about this year’s festival, remarking that overall the market picked up from 2009 when he and his colleagues nabbed “A Prophet.”

“It felt less desperate than last year,” Barker told Anthony Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal as the fest ended, “But I would still say the word for the atmosphere was cautiousness. Everyone had a lot of caution about the buying of films and where the business is headed.”

More

Few other companies made major pacts in Cannes this year. As was prevoiusly mentioned: Magnolia Pictures scored a sleeper hit with Quentin Dupieux’s “Rubber,” from the Critics Week section in Cannes and Kino Lorber moved quickly after the festival to announce its deal for Lee Chang-dong’s competition entry, “Poetry.”

Tom Quinn and Dori Begley from Magnolia Pictures on the Croisette. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

As the post-fest buzz continues, observers will be watching for news on a few Cannes titles, particularly a number of award winners.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is a hot topic in the wake of its Palme d’Or win for the acclaimed Thai auteur. Will the filmmaker return to Strand Releasing, which has handled a number of his previous movies?

Who will buy Mathieu Amalric’s “Tournee” (On Tour), which received a particuarly strong reaction from the French?

And finally, what of the divisive “Biutiful” directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu? It scored criticWIRE grades that are all over the map. While it has a ‘C+’ grade, its marks range from a number of ‘A’ grades, all the way to ‘F’.

Focus has the film internationally and CAA is handling its domestic deal, which should be boosted by Javier Bardem’s best actor prize on closing night. But, many agree, it may take a bit of time to seal a deal.

Watching Weinstein & Pondering Pohlad

Harvey Weinstein wandered out onto the Carlton Hotel’s terrace near the end of breakfast on Friday morning in Cannes. Wearing baggy blue jeans and a bright white T-shirt he said to no one in particular, “Good morning.”

While most hotel guests were dining in tables congregated in a sunny area of the hotel’s patio, Weinstein sat away from everyone else.

He was later joined by producer Bill Pohlad.

Questions about the fate of the companies founded by both Weinstein and Pohlad bookended the 2010 Cannes Film Festival in France. As some Apparition staffers were en route to the airport for this year’s festival, Pohald’s partner Bob Berney announced that he was leaving the young company that had launched just one year earlier in Cannes. Questions about Apparition and Berney’s own plans were persistent throughout the festival as many wondered if some clarity might come during the market.

It didn’t.

Bob Berney in Cannes. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Sitting on the patio of his rented Cannes apartment overlooking the Croisette on the second day of the festival, Berney said little about his reasons for leaving, but it was clear that he and Pohlad had reached some sort of irreconcilable difference involving the direction of the company and its film releases. So, Berney swiftly opted to bail out.

“It’s clear things need to change,” he told Anne Thompson in Cannes, “especially with exhibitors, who are willing to be more experimental and creative. There’s plenty of room for films with the bigger chains, who need crossover product. I still think there’s a big audience. With the right backing behind you, it can still work, even though it’s tough out there.” It helps that there’s more liquidity in the marketplace, and both lower budgets and sale prices for movies.

Optimistic about the fate of the film distribution business, Berney, in town with his wife Jeanne and their older son, Sean, spent the duration of his time at the fest laying the foundation for something new.

Contrary to speculation at the start of the festival, he didn’t leave Apparition to join Weinstein. Although, he said that Harvey was the first person to call him once word got out that he was leaving Pohlad and Apparition.

Bill Pohlad in Cannes. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

In even more compelling industry buzz, industry eyes were trained on Harvey Weinstein throughout Cannes 2010 as observers anticipated his announcement of a deal to buy back Miramax, the company he sold to Disney back in the mid-90s heyday of the modern specialty film era. Brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein had been in negotiations for some time before Cannes leading to an exclusive negotiation period that would expire during the festival.

Cornered near the pool during a party for his Sundance acquisition “Blue Valentine,” Weinstein quipped to Anne Thompson, “Have you ever seen ‘The Last Angry Man’? That’s me.”

By the end of the festival, on the same day that he was meeting with Bill Pohlad on the terrace of the Carlton, word spread online that the Weinsteins had failed in their bid to buy back the company they created back in 1979. They originally denied the reports, saying that negotiations continued. “The parties continue to work diligently towards an agreement,” they said in a statement to Variety. Yet yesterday, the Wall Street Journal said that discussions had ended.

Eyeing the Future

Sitting in his temporary Palais des Festivals office at the start of Cannes’ Marche du Film this year, market head Jerome Paillard was optimistic despite some concerns over the future of Apparition. He wondered about the state of the U.S. independent film business but maintained a positive outlook.

Cannes market head Jerome Paillard in his office. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

This year’s market saw a jump in attendees, back to 2008 levels, and more films screening than last year. And he’s seeing a growth in attendance on the producers’ side as his market aims to better support producers who may increasingly forgo traditional sales strategies for their films, particularly in the U.S.

“The current trend of Americans slowly acquiring rights to specialty films will not last,” wrote Sydney Levine in her post-Cannes wrap-up this week, “The majors are also now buying multiple territories though *not yet* for U.S. and because the field has become more crowded (hence competitive) with new distributors.”

Overall, there’s a feeling that the business has survived the worst, even if the future is still a bit of a question mark.

“Nobody knows what the actual value chain is going to look like with the full transition of the digital future,” offered Focus Features’ James Schamus, who said that his company is moving tentatively into new platforms, while still exploring digital possibilities.

At the end of the day, Cannes veteran Schamus said the market (and the business) are moving in the right direction.

Whereas previously, the business felt a bit like someone running in mid-air with their legs spinning but making no forward progress, today things are improving.

“Now,” Schamus said, “It’s more like we are jogging on the beach and it’s a little hard to get your feet out of the sand. It’s a good work out, you are getting there.”

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be followed on Twitter: @eug or through his indieWIRE blog.

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