Auteurs keep buyers busy at Cannes

Fest has plenty, for the right kind of distributor

More Cannes coverage

CANNES -- The absence of high-profile English-language films with U.S. stars make this year's Festival de Cannes something less than an acquisitions hotbed for the bigger specialty divisions.

But for a certain kind of buyer, it's paradise.

Late Wednesday, one of those buyers, Sony Pictures Classics, began reaping the festival's fruits, acquiring North American rights to Michael Haneke's period German-language pic "The White Ribbon" and Jan Kounen's French-language "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," which closes the fest.

The first pickup marks another SPC collaboration with Haneke, whose "Cache" was released by the company in 2006. The "Chanel" buy brings to two the number of Chanel-related releases on SPC's slate, since the company also plans to distribute the Audrey Tautou biopic "Coco Avant Chanel" domestically.

Last year, in a similarly flavored (if more U.S. director-heavy) Cannes, SPC and IFC loaded up on films, buying roughly a dozen titles between them.

SPC unearthed Golden Globe winner "Waltz With Bashir," Charlie Kaufman cult favorite "Synecdoche, New York," Palme d'Or winner "The Class" and current theatrical release "Tyson," among others, while IFC Films put critical hit "Gomorrah," the Steven Soderbergh epic "Che" and Arnaud Desplechin's well-received "A Christmas Tale" in their shopping bags.

This year, the heavy presence of auteurs with proven critical track records means those types of buyers will be very active again.

"Cannes is not a place for commercial films," SPC co-president Tom Bernard said. "It's a place for high-quality titles, and there are not a lot of people still in that business."

Those that are, however, are not wasting time. On Wednesday, IFC announced it had picked up "Tales From the Golden Age," the Romanian omnibus pic that's written and partly directed by 2007 Palme d'Or winner Cristian Mungiu, and was said to be close to a deal on at least one other pic.

It may not be Miramax or Fox Searchlight, but there are many circling the waters. The presence of upstart distribs like Oscilloscope, National Geographic and Bob Berney's new shingle, mean that, while the prices for many films may be lower than they've been in a long time, the battles for prestige titles could give off heat.

And other commercial-minded labels such as Summit and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group, which have both made buys at festivals in the 2008-09 season, could make a play for movies with genre and other commercial elements.

"I know sales agents are supposed to say this, but I believe both domestic and foreign buyers need films," William Morris Independent co-topper Rena Ronson said. "They've stockpiled films for the last 12-18 months, and now they need new ones."

Still, the temperature at the current Cannes will be a far cry from just two years ago, when James Gray's cop drama "We Own the Night" yielded a bidding war and a high seven-figure offer from Sony.

Many of the major agencies are taking a pass on this year's festival, representing few finished films and keeping the focus on projects they're packaging and selling in the market.

William Morris Independent is repping only one title, Un Certain Regard coming-of-age Brazilian drama "Adrift," while CAA and Endeavor Independent are peddling no films that are playing in or out of competition.

Cinetic Media, on the other hand, is doubling down on Cannes films: it's repping both Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (starring Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp and Jude Law) and Alejandro Amenabar's "Agora" (starring Rachel Weisz), seen as the two available titles with the most commercial upside.

With stars and copious buzz, both films could end up with studio deals, though higher budgets means that producers will seek a higher price tag than the six figures or low seven figures most Cannes titles go for these days.

The quality of many of the movies -- coupled with the relationships many of the selected filmmakers have with U.S. distribs -- could mean a surprisingly high number walk away with at least one or two pics in their baskets.

Almost every auteur In Competition has in recent years released a film through one of the boutique distributors that's trawling the Croisette.

Johnnie To, who brings assassin pic "Vengeance, could continue a relationship with Magnolia, which released his 2006 hit man drama "Exiled."

Isabel Coixet, who debuts her love-and-murder story "A Map of the Sounds of Tokyo" In Competition, saw her intergenerational drama "Elegy" released last year by Samuel Goldwyn.

Michael Haneke -- the WWI German pic "The White Ribbon" -- saw his French-language critical fave "Cache" released by Sony Pictures Classics three years ago.

And Ken Loach brought his Palme d'Or-winning "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" to the U.S. via IFC, though his new film "Looking for Eric," while more comedic than some past works, has a soccer theme that could make a U.S. play a little trickier.

Lars von Trier brings his English-language, genre-inflected "Antichrist" to the festival; although most of his past distributors are no longer in business, he's expected to catch the eye of many acquisitions execs.

And up-and comers Andrea Arnold, who caught U.S. film execs' attention with her Oscar-winning short several years ago, will enjoy a coming-out party of sorts for her buzz-laden drama "Fish Tank."

A few years ago the big specialty units might be counted on to fawn over Arnold's film. This year, it could be the smaller and midsize units. But as one fest veteran noted, in an indie world in tumult, at least some distributors are fawning.