What's Selling at Cannes

Dale Robinette/FilmDistrict

Festival market sees a resurgence from U.S. distributors.

A new wave of indie distributors from the U.S. has washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Opening their checkbooks, they have re-energized a market that had slowed to a trickle in recent years and are guaranteeing that some of the fest's heralded movies will hit American theaters.

Most impressive has been FilmDistrict, the new distribution outfit headed by Peter Schlessel and Bob Berney. By midfest, it had grabbed the action pic Arabian Nights, which stars Liam Hemsworth as Ali Baba; the Gerard Butler-Jessica Biel romantic comedy Playing the Field; and the sci-fi thriller Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (which, in partnership with Endgame, will be released through TriStar).

"It's been a great market for deals on movies that are either in the works or showing promo reels," Berney says. "Peter is a great closer, and Cannes is a great catalyst to push a deal to completion."

Ironically, the major studios set the stage for the indie resurgence. By cutting back their release slates, the majors cleared a path for Oscar winners The King's Speech and Black Swan to gross $400 million and $300 million worldwide, respectively, as well as recent hits like Film District's Insidious, which was made for $1.5 million and has passed the $50 million mark domestically.

"These buyers have fundamentally changed the landscape," one Cannes player says. "They're going to do wide releases that were made at a fraction of the budget of a studio movie."

The nascent FilmDistrict, with plenty of release slots to fill, also announced that, come December, it will handle Angelina Jolie's feature directorial debut, Bosnia-set The Land of Blood and Honey, for parent GK Films. Tom Ortenberg's Open Road, the new distribution company launched by theater chains AMC and Regal, made its first big buy, scooping up U.S. rights to Killer Elite, an actioner starring Jason Statham as a Special Ops agent. And Summit also opted for genre fare in nabbing Snitch, in which Dwayne Johnson goes up against a drug dealer.

Even as new players drove up the bidding, Cannes perennial Harvey Weinstein was throwing his weight around the Croisette. "It's incredible to be back at Cannes with this kind of lineup," Weinstein crowed at a cocktail party previewing his latest buys.

The Weinstein Co. jumped into the fray right at the start, securing Peter Chan's out-of-competition martial arts movie Wu Xia, which will be retitled Dragon for U.S. consumption, and French production The Artist, even before it earned a prolonged standing ovation at its competition screening. A silent movie about the arrival of talkies, Artist will present a particular challenge for Weinstein marketers; Harvey claimed that his staff "called the lunatic asylum" when he fell for the movie.

On the other hand, The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher for her Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd, sounds like automatic awards bait, and the bidding was fierce. With Summit, Roadside and Open Road all in the mix, Weinstein prevailed by partnering with Ron Burkle's Yucaipa Cos. -- which also backed Weinstein's Sundance deal for Our Idiot Brother -- to come up with a $7 million-plus offer that clinched the deal with Pathe. The Weinstein Co. also promised an Oscar campaign as part of its $5 million buy of John Hillcoat's The Wettest County in the World, a tale of Depression-era bootleggers starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman that has just finished filming.

Sony Pictures Classics and IFC Films, typically two of the constants when it comes to Cannes pickups, selected a few titles for themselves. SPC liked Joseph Cedar's Footnote, a father-son drama that screened in competition. IFC took domestic distribution on the French drama Goodbye First Love and made a presale buy of Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air, which starts production in June. And IFC's sister division Sundance Selects was seduced by Julia Leigh's debut film, Sleeping Beauty, in which Emily Browning bares all as a high-class prostitute in one of the more controversial competition entries.

While Focus Features International was looking for foreign buyers for its big-budget offering Cloud Atlas, starring Tom Hanks, its domestic distribution arm clinched U.S. rights to Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Keira Knightley and Steve Carell. Meanwhile, Samuel Goldwyn Films wrapped up a deal for Chen Kaige's action drama Sacrifice.          

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