To buy or not to buy in Cannes

Market fare sells, but big fest films still up for grabs

CANNES -- Buyers need movies to fill release slates, and any titles with solid casting or a director attached are generally good bets. And sellers want to strike deals at a price that realistically reflects the economic gloom and falling production budgets without erasing profit margins. So the two sides are talking, but are they, you know, talking?

As the Marche du Film enters the home stretch Wednesday, there is reticence on both sides to be the ones to come out and say the marketplace is on its uppers. Certainly fewer and fewer sellers are hollering about North American sales.

The usual North American power buyers, including IFC Films and Phase 4 Films, had made it through Tuesday without pulling out their wallets.

Sony Pictures Classics, though, stepped up to the plate and acquired domestic rights to Mike Leigh's "Another Year" in the wake of a pre-emptive deal for Stephen Frears' "Tamara Drewe" it struck ahead of Cannes.

Newbies such as Red Flag Releasing ("8: The Mormon Proposition") and Oscilloscope Laboratories ("Howl") have yet to splash the cash. But another new guy on the block, Olive Films, opened its wallet, picking up a raft of titles. In addition to Danish film "R," which Olive snatched from TrustNordisk, the company did a major package deal with Germany's The Match Factory. Olive grabbed North American rights from Match for Semih Kaplanoglu's "Yusuf Trilogy": "Yumurta" (Egg) and "Sut" (Milk) and Berlin Golden Bear winner "Bal" (Honey), as well as last year's Berlin winner "The Milk of Sorrow" from Peruvian director Claudia Llosa and San Sebastian favorite "Me Too" from directors Alvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro.

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"There are some gems out there that we're going to be going after," Oscilloscope's David Fenkel said. "You'll see, there will be plenty of deals over the next month. It is a quieter year but that's not because there aren't good films. The big companies aren't going after these movies right now, and that is what typically creates a lot of excitement."

Pre-Cannes, agency sales reps essentially shrugged at the potential for domestic deals, recognizing that shifts in the rhythm of the industry have made the Cannes market even less important for domestic sales.

Whereas the 2008 Cannes featured high-profile titles with U.S. distribution rights available, such as "Two Lovers," "Che" and "Synecdoche, New York," there aren't as many "substantial" titles available this year. CAA is repping Inarrituπs "Biutiful," which is one of the few pictures that seems destined for a domestic deal, but it sold Doug Limanπs "Fair Game" to Summit in the lead-up to the festival.

"The buyers are being very conservative," said Julie Sultan, Peace Arch Entertainment's president of international sales and distribution. "They are being very thoughtful with their selections."

At the same time that U.S. buyers are feeling less and less compelled to make early deals and foreign buyers are busy ... ish.

U.S. sales, finance and production banner Myriad Pictures jetted into Cannes with late sales slate addition "Margin Call," starring Kevin Spacey and Zachary Quinto. Cassian Elwes, along with UTA and Untitled Entertainment, is handling domestic for the banking crisis thriller and Myriad has already struck deals for the picture in Germany, the Middle East, Turkey, Romania, Yugoslavia and Latin America for pay TV.

"Buyers have gone for it because it is truly timely and is a film about what is happening now," Myriad president Kirk D'Amico said.

Make no mistake, while market attendees are not shouting "the good times are back," there is an air of quiet calm if you come with a good script, talent attached and reasonable budget levels.

So while French company MK2 CEO Nathanael Karmitz thinks there are fewer films in the market overall "and hardly any interesting indie titles from the U.S.," Karmitz said international sales are positive.

MK2 scored pre-sales for Walter Salles' "On the Road" to Icon in the U.K. and Australia, Cineart in Belgium and Concorde Tele Munchen in Germany. German sales agent Telepool sold four films -- "Cargo," "The Door," "Mein Kampf" and Tribeca winner "When We Leave" to Mongrel for Canada; two ("Cargo," "The Door") to Seven Sept for France and two ("Cargo," "Mein Kampf") to CCV for Scandinavia.

Ramy Choi, director of acquisitions and distribution for Jackie Chan International, reported brisk sales for Chan's most recent picture, "Little Big Soldier," as well as the new slate of movies in which he will star and/or produce. "Soldier" went to the U.K.'s Showbox Media Group as well as Italy's One Movie SRL, France's Metropolitan Filmexport, Benelux's Splendid Film and Japan's Presidio.

His upcoming star turn in "Drunken Master 1945" attracted buys from Showbox, the Middle East's Gulf Film, and distributors in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia/Brunei. The Chan-produced "The Break-Up Artist," starring Lin Peng, went to Showbox, One Movie and a host of Middle East and Asian buyers. New company Showbox, which is building up its DVD library, and Gulf Film also took rights to such future Chan titles as "Cambodia Landmine," "Tiger Mountain" and "Manhattan."

Confidence could also do with a boost if Japan showed any signs of being back at the top tables.

"Unfortunately, Japan has become an inward-looking territory, one North American sales executive said. "Because local, less expensive productions seem to be working at the boxoffice there, the buyers are not here spending lots on U.S. product anymore."

So while most agree that, while the days of headline-grabbing deals seem to a part of Cannes' past, the good times may yet return.

Rebecca Leffler and Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.