Cannes 2009: Year of the genre mash-up

Shift in approach for auteurs is partly a survival strategy

CANNES -- For the global film business, genre-busting may be the next big thing.

Both in the Cannes Competition and in the market, auteurs are mashing art house sensibilities with pulp fiction. It's an attempt to hook film buyers mindful of shrinking theatrical prospects for both art house and nonstudio genre films.

As the Competition screenings near the halfway mark, festgoers have been treated to the sight of a doubting priest-turned-vampire in Park Chan-wook's "Thirst"; Jacques Audiard's social realism-meets-prison drama "A Prophet"; and Brillante Mendoza's cop drama-cum-critique of Filipino society in "Kinatay."

And then there are the art house directors who are changing their spots.

Lars von Trier has seamlessly switched from the stark experimentation of "Dogville" and "Manderlay" to psycho horror in "Antichrist"; while serious-minded auteur Ang Lee has gone all groovy with the comedy "Taking Woodstock."

These shifts in approach and subject matter are partly a subtle survival strategy by filmmakers in an ever more picky market. In this market, movie buyers are slow to commit to anything that doesn't have clear commercial potential.

"Look at the films that won in Berlin," one veteran buyer said. "They are great movies but they are a hard sell to audiences. Today you need more than just a good name and great reviews. You need a commercial hook."

One lurking danger in this strategy is that these genre mash-ups will fall between the cracks -- too bloody for art house snobs and too long and slow-paced for genre junkies.

It's still too early to evaluate how commercially successful these attempts to mix and match art house elements with genre conventions will be both in terms of getting distribution and then pulling in audiences.

But here on the Croisette at least, they are returning a sense of excitement to jaded festgoers.

"These directors are good enough to pull these surprises off and deals will come on the back of that quality," one U.S. studio acquisition exec said.

"The buyers are very excited about 'Antichrist.' We expect it to be Lars von Trier's most commercially successful film in a long time," TrustNordisk CEO Rikke Ennis said.

As Cannes breezes toward an action-packed second week, attendees can expect more of these "mixed" messages from both the official Competition line up and from the market.