Buyers' market on the Croisette

Quirky competition fare will be tough sell

Can a four-hour look at Che Guevara, a three-way love story and one surrealist head trip bring an end to a film festival cold streak?

As the 61st annual Festival de Cannes kicks off today, anxious filmmakers and their reps are hoping a few high-profile competition titles and a slew of market films revive what has been a moribund specialty film sales market during the past year. Last year's Toronto and Sundance film festivals drew tepid interest from U.S. buyers, who bought fewer films than in the recent past and on the whole paid less for the films they did take home.

Heading the list of hot titles on the Croisette are a trio of In Competition films from a group of U.S. auteurs: James Gray's "Two Lovers" (repped by CAA); Steven Soderbergh's "Che," a film in two parts (Wild Bunch); and Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York" (UTA).

Gray jump-started last year's fest when his police procedural "We Own the Night," produced by 2929 Prods. and repped by Cinetic Media, sold for $11.5 million to Columbia. Gray's new tale, a love triangle starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow, takes the director back to the immigrant precincts of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach that he has chronicled in previous films. The film was not expected to make its debut until the upcoming editions of Venice or Toronto but was hustled into Cannes at the eleventh hour.

Soderbergh's "Che," an ambitious look into the origins and later years of the revolutionary Guevara, could be a marketing and distribution challenge. The project piqued interest when footage was shown at February's Berlin International Film Festival, but questions remain about whether it will be distributed as a double bill or two separate films.

Wild Bunch is in exclusive presale negotiations with one U.S. distributor, but a decision likely will not be made until after the film's official Competition premiere May 21.

Perhaps the biggest wild card is "Synechdoche," Kaufman's $20 million-plus directorial debut. The dreamlike film chronicles 40 years in one man's life as he undertakes a surreal mission: to direct a play in a city within a city within a warehouse. The special effects-filled film has been described as intense and uncompromising, and though it doesn't screen until May 23, a buyer screening Saturday will provide the first test of distributor interest.

A host of smaller and foreign-language films In Competition could be candidates for pickups by such smaller specialty divisions as Sony Pictures Classics and IFC. They include Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir," an animated Israeli documentary about the 1982 Lebanon War; Wim Wenders' "The Palermo Shooting," about a man who moves to Italy to try to escape his past; and Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' "Linha de Passe," a Brazil-set tale about a group of working-class brothers who box.

Barry Levinson's closing-night film, the Hollywood tale "What Just Happened?" from 2929 Prods., is resurfacing with a new edit at a buyers' screening May 21. Cinetic and CAA co-repped the film at Sundance, but after disappointing reactions, neither is handling the film at Cannes. Instead, 2929's international arm is selling the movie, but should no buyers make a large enough offer, 2929's sister distributor, Magnolia Pictures, likely will release the film, just as it took on "The Life Before Her Eyes" following its Toronto debut.

Despite their vaunted pedigrees, many of the Competition films aren't expected to ignite studio bidding wars. "In terms of commercially viable pictures coming out of the festival itself, expectations are fairly modest," Lionsgate president of theatrical films Tom Ortenberg said.

Instead, the market will be a focal point as such projects as Lakeshore's "Fame" remake, Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor prison romance "I Love You, Phillip Morris" and the self-parodying Jean-Claude Van Damme French-language biopic "J.C.V.D." are intriguing buyers. David O. Russell's "Nailed" and Taylor Hackford's "Love Ranch" also were expected to draw interest, though difficulties for financier Capitol Films could reduce interest in those titles.

But competitive bidding also could be scaled back because of the recent shuttering of Warners' Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures units as well as the uncertain financial future of ThinkFilm, which is owned by Capitol.

"(Contraction) won't have a major short-term impact, but fewer U.S. distributors for upper-tier indie films probably will push down prices across the board for North American rights," IMGlobal CEO Stuart Ford said.

And one veteran sales agent who's often accurate about market sales noted that with a glut of market films, "A lot of films will remain unsold," adding that "the larger sellers will do fine, but the smaller ones will get creamed." (partialdiff)