Film sales at Cannes hardly a big deal

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Five days. Dozens of stars. Zero sales.

With the Festival de Cannes 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 — movies like "Red Riding Trilogy" going to cabler IFC in modest deals — the larger U.S. companies that board projects at the script, production or postproduction stages have stayed 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 Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful," which stars Javier Bardem in a story of a drug dealer and a policeman; 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 prompted specialty buyers or genre labels to act.

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 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, then 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 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.

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

Meanwhile, a number of buyers have said 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 means for them. But privately, many buyers are touting the quiet as a sign of their newfound power — while sellers downplay the standstill as nothing new.

"Most studios don't like buying in until they see a movie," one seller said. "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, then supply is expected to be a lot more reasonable at future markets. (partialdiff)
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