Agency packages unopened in Cannes

Some sellers biding their time at fest's midway point

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CANNES -- Five days. Dozens of stars. Zero sales.

With the festival hitting its midway point, the abundance of top-tier projects available to U.S. distributors hasn't translated into a blizzard of buys.

It hasn't even led to a scattered flurry.

"I've never seen so much to buy," one fest veteran said. "And no one's buying anything."

While the occasional finished film has found its way to a smaller buyer in the market -- and movies like George Gallo's "Middle Men" and Grant Heslov's "The men Who Stare at Goats" said to be on the verge of a studio deal, many of the larger U.S. companies that board projects at the script, production or postproduction stages have stayed entirely on the sidelines.

From the Hollywood studios and their specialty labels to the so-called indie mini-majors, the most that can be said of these firms is that they're circling. Very slowly.

The list of projects sparking interest but not pickups is long, but it includes a period drama with Robert Pattinson and Rachel Weisz called "Unbound Captives" and Stephen Gaghan's "Blink," which will star Al Pacino as a father who reconnects with his estranged son.

Even genre efforts like Michael Winterbottom's "Killer Inside Me," about a sheriff who turns out to be a serial killer, has not yet prompted specialty buyers or genre labels to act.

(It's worth noting, of course, that not all of these projects are being sold with the same level of aggressiveness, and a number of titles, including "Blink" and John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," have landed foreign deals.)

U.S. companies tend to buy sporadically at markets even in more active years. But this Cannes brought so many marketable projects -- with bankable stars, well-known filmmakers and desirable genres -- that the sheer mass suggested studios would make some moves.

Instead, sellers have been left to make a fusillade of casting and project announcements as they try to stir up interest.

Sellers are in some cases also being wary of how hard to push for a deal: If they feel a project could reel in a higher price once the film is finished, they're biding their time.

Neil Jordan's "Ondine" -- a Colin Farrell-toplined fisherman tale with a mermaid plot line -- is not being trotted out here and will probably debut in Toronto, as CAA hopes to replicate the success it had showing "The Wrestler" there last year.

And "Chloe," the Atom Egoyan project that gained attention when star Liam Neeson left the set to be with his late wife Natasha Richardson, is in post and will likely debut in Toronto as well, which takes heat off a Cannes negotiation.

The imbalance between the supply of and demand for these movies is also a function of a specific moment in the indie film world.

Many of these projects were put together under the assumption that there would be healthy studio specialty divisions hungry for product, but now indies are having to deal with a much-diminished specialty world.

And the fact that many of these pictures contain stars, with their back-end deals and other negotiation complexities, means that even when a buyer is interested, it takes longer to close a deal.

Gran Heslov's comedic military tale "Men Who Stare at Goats" has been a well-liked script since it made the rounds more than a year ago, and has sparked talked that a deal was close. But the presence of a star like George Clooney in the movie may very well be prolonging the negotiation.

Meanwhile, a number of buyers here say they don't always love what they see, and they are in Cannes in smaller numbers to boot.

The dearth of deals is a function of "both quality and attendance," one buyer said.

Most buyers and sellers were reluctant to go on record about what this meant for them. But privately, many buyers are touting the quiet as a sign of their newfound power -- while sellers downplayed the standstill as nothing new.

"Most studios don't like buying in until they see a movie," one seller said. "And when there's a big commitment required, as some of these projects have, they're really going to wait."

If the logjam of projects on the Croisette is a function of this specific moment, supply is expected to be a lot more reasonable at future markets.

For now though, the industry could be left with some very big movies that may be left without U.S. distribution even after they're finished; that in turn could open the door for smaller distribs to make a pickup.

Indeed, the next step for sellers -- as it is for suppliers in any business with too much inventory -- is to lower prices.

As the fest goes on, agencies eager to close a deal may indeed offer discounts. In the current climate, everything must go. Even A-listers.
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