As Cannes turns 60, festival thinking big

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CANNES -- Bigger is better could be the theme of the 60th anniversary Festival de Cannes.

Bigger directors -- with a string of Palme d'Or winners crowding the In Competition lineup.

Bigger stars -- with a red carpet A-list that started with Norah Jones and Jude Law in Wong Kar Wai's Festival opener "My Blueberry Nights" and will peak with the cast of "Ocean's Thirteen" next week.

And with a wave of hedge fund, tax incentives and public money stimulating production, bigger projects making the rounds at the Marche du Film looking for presales and co-financing.

"The bar was set this year at Sundance, where you had more than $50 million in sales in a place that's not even a market," said Lakeshore Entertainment president of worldwide marketing and distribution David Dinerstein, who sees a healthy appetite for films in the $10 million-$30 million budget range. "You have 3,000 different companies and 10,000 people attending to buy movies," he added.

Most of which haven't been made yet. "We're more inundated with lists of promo reels from international sales companies than ever before," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker said.

"I think we'll see more of these sellers compete than ever," added ICM head of international and independent Hal Sadoff.

"A lot of scripts have been sent out later than usual, leaving buyers scrambling to read them," said GreeneStreet Films International president Ariel Veneziano. "In an ideal world, it would be happening a month before Cannes."

Projects generating heat at the start of the market include Roman Polanski's Roman epic "Pompeii," which Summit Entertainment is shopping around at Cannes; Focus Features' Coen brothers' drama "Burn After Reading"; and the Fernando Meirelles-directed "Blindness." On the genre side, Jan de Bont's action film "Stopping Force," from world sales group IM Global, is stirring up interest.

"The market is as healthy as it's been in a long time," Endeavor Independent head Graham Taylor said. "There's a strong co-production market, with a lot of international financial partners sharing risk."

"A lot of sales companies have very high expectations," Myriad president and CEO Kirk D'Amico said. "(But) it's still a buyer's market." He observed that it was the abundance of soft money and hedge fund cash that is driving production, rather than actual market demand.

The official festival lineup, particularly the In Competition films, offers slim pickings for buyers this year as most of the high-profile titles have been presold to most major territories.

These include Sony Pictures Classics animated feature "Persepolis," Miramax's Coen brothers-directed thriller "No Country for Old Men" and the Weinstein Co.'s "My Blueberry Nights" and "Sicko," Michael Moore's health-care documentary.

"The In Competition titles are almost all gone, so people will be looking elsewhere for hidden gems," said Thorsten Schaumann, co-head of German sales group Bavaria Film International.

"I hope it'll be a great market," said Valentina Merli of France's Pyramide International. "We have eight films at the market this year, and seven of them are in the official selection. We have our agendas booked for the first few days, so after that we'll see."

One of the big unknowns this year is just how the transformation of international sales giants will play out. Fortissimo Films, which is incorporating its traditional international arthouse fare with a few higher-priced films, now faces redoubled competition from Dreamachine, a merger of the arthouse sellers Celluloid Dreams and Hanway.

As the international indies beef up their slates and deliver bigger-budget fare, many veteran players are having a tough time keeping up.

"For the independents, you need the big titles to stand out," said Ann-Kristin Westerberg, head of international at Swedish giant Svensk, which is using Cannes to launch sales on the Crusades epic "Arn," budgeted at more than $30 million, making it Scandinavia's biggest-ever feature film. "Without a few high-end films to attract attention, you are going to get lost in the shuffle."

More than one Spanish seller complained that without a high-profile title, coming to Cannes is too expensive.

"The costs are getting harder to justify," said one seller, who asked not to be identified. "It could take me more than a year to pay off the booth in Cannes."

Distributors are expecting the usual five or six big North American buys of completed films. Most buyers' to-do lists include: James Gray's crime drama "We Own the Night," starring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix; Tom Kalin's true crime drama "Savage Grace," starring Julianne Moore; the in-your-face concert docu "U2 3D;" Gus Van Sant's skateborder crime drama "Paranoid Park;" Anton Corbijn's music-filled Joy Division biopic "Control"; and the talk of the festival, Julian Schnabel's mainly French-language biopic "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

But as Picturehouse president Bob Berney and Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg each note, with domestic distribution already in place for most In Competition films, the focus of industry meetings will shift to things like financing, co-production and negative pickups.

On the specialty front in North America, a number of companies have a lot of room, said Focus Features CEO James Schamus. "On the flip side, it's an unbelievably crowded, overpopulated distribution landscape that's underfed, so many specialty distributors need to release movies."

"Because of the volume of arthouse films, it's a very fruitful place for companies like us, Magnolia, ThinkFilm (and) Warner Independent Pictures. There's a lot of choice," said IFC Entertainment vp acquisitions and productions Arianna Bocco. Several potential buyers like Overture Films' COO Danny Rosett have 15 priority screenings. "We've worked for two months with sales agents and narrowed our priorities," he said. "Still, there's plenty of room for surprises, as SPC discovered last year (when it picked up eventual Oscar foreign-language winner "The Lives of Others").

So just how is an overworked, sleep-deprived exec able to cope with it all? "Sugar, caffeine, alcohol and a load of (vitamin supplement) Barocca," Miramax's Kristin Jones said. "I have it down to a science."

Rebecca Leffler and Pamela Rolfe contributed to this report.
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