Cannes market: Expect the expected

Sellers descend on the Croisette with realistic goals

CANNES -- Damn the volcanoes, a mini-tsunami and the fear-driven global economy: The show must go on.

Marche du Film attendees who've made it through the financial turmoil of the last two years aren't letting a little Icelandic ash or a wet and windy Cannes blow them off course.

Sellers are arriving quietly confident that, with slimmer slates and more realistic expectations, sufficient deals will be done to justify the still eyebrow-raising cost of doing business here.

"We came out of Berlin very positive. Buyers are more selective, they are more savvy, but they are still buying," said Helen Lee Kim, president of international at Lionsgate. "But nowadays you have to have a project that hits the bullseye, with a clear demo, a crystal-clear marketing concept. Before, if you got it anywhere on the board, you'd get the presales."

Lionsgate is hoping to hit the market sweet spot with Marc Forster's action-drama "Machine Gun Preacher," which has Gerard Butler attached as well as futuristic teen gladiator title "Hunger Games," based on the best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

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And while a slightly better Sundance and an almost buoyant Berlin proved that buyers are willing to spend, with fewer slots on shrinking release schedules, anyone able to sign a check still has the upper hand.

One U.S. acquisitions chief said few are expecting the unexpected.

"Our team is smaller and we are focusing on fewer titles. There's a strong Asian presence in the lineup this year from seriously interesting directors, which usually creates buzz."

Tony Jaa's "Ong Bak 3," which Sahamongkolfilm is selling, CJ Entertainment's "The Servant" from director Kim Dae-Woo and Fortissimo's "Norwegian Wood," Anh Hung Tran's adaptation of the Haruki Murakami best-seller, are just a taster of the Far East movies generating heat as Cannes kicks off.

"While many films from Asia continue to fall into the art house category, we feel there's a bit of a comeback in commercial interest as the films grow in budget and gain in their technical sophistication," said Fortissimo head Michael Werner.

Going into the market, the Cannes Marche head Jerome Paillard said registrations were up 5% on the same period last year. And he expects final numbers to be on par with 2008, marking a recovery from the dip experienced last year. Some 300 companies will be exhibiting in the Palais, with 150 or so more registered but choosing to take hotel suites or apartments in Cannes as offices instead. Of note is the fact that Latin distributors are particularly noticeable this year as exhibitors as are movies being made in 3D.

Buyers are less impressed by the festival lineup this year, which remains strongly auteur-driven, with few anticipated as crossover titles.

"The festival's taste has stayed the same, full of difficult, challenging and experimental films, but the market has moved on," said Thorsten Ritter, head of Germany's Bavaria International. "It's harder and harder to find a distributor to pay for these festival films."

Bavaria's Cannes has a mainstream tilt, including the South African drama "Black Butterflies," from Oscar-nominee Paula van der Oest and starring Carice van Houten and Rutger Hauer.

Every rule demands an exception, and Doug Liman's "Fair Game" is the odd one out as the only Competition movie to wear its mainstream sensibilities on its sleeve.

E1 Entertainment took U.K. and Irish rights to the real-life drama, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, ahead of its festival bow. But such high-profile pickups for fest titles may be rare.

What marketgoers can expect are more creative partnerships between U.S. and international companies as everyone pools their resources to find more efficient, and less risky, ways to produce and sell globally.

A just-announced deal between Fox International Productions and Fortissimo Films will see Fortissimo handle international sales on several of Fox's local-language titles.

In another U.S-international hook up, French producer/distributor Celluloid Dreams and L.A-based production/sales outfit XYZ Films will use Cannes to launch a joint venture.

"The approach these days is, it's all about the Cannes foreign market," said CAA's Micah Green. "We don't care about the domestic. We don't need to presell these movies. The pressure is on selling international at a level consistent or beyond sales agents' expectations."

Green also points to future deals being dependent on the balance of the sales agents delivering on their estimates at Cannes this year.

Jay A. Fernandez contributed to this report.
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