Cannes 2012: With Hollywood Cutting Back, It's a Foreign Buyers' Market

2012-17 FEA Cannes Hotel Noir H

A sexually charged crime film set in 1950s Los Angeles that tells the story of a detective holed up in a downtown hotel waiting to be killed. Stars Rufus Sewell, Danny DeVito, Carla Gugino, Rosario Dawson and Malin Akerman.

Titles touting marquee names like Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Taylor Kitsch and even Oprah are up for grabs.

At this year's Cannes Film Market, foreign sales companies are rushing in where studios fear to tread. With the Hollywood majors cutting back on midrange movies in favor of cheapies and pricey would-be blockbusters, independent productions are picking up the slack. And that, in turn, means foreign distributors have a chance to buy into a broad array of titles touting marquee names like Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Taylor Kitsch and even Oprah.

"The studios are doing films for $130 million and up. That leaves room for us to do movies that the independents could never have gotten their hands on before," says Lisa Wilson of The Solution Entertainment, whose Cannes lineup includes projects boasting Robin Williams and Elijah Wood. Recent successes like Exclusive Media's Daniel Radcliffe ghost story The Woman in Black, which grossed $126 million worldwide, proved it's a healthy business. And worldwide breakout hits like The Hunger Games, which Lionsgate sold last year since the company doesn't have a global distribution network of its own, have buyers salivating to grab foreign rights to its sequel Catching Fire this time round. "There is a big appetite for the kinds of movies the studios are staying away from," attests Sierra/Affinity founder and CEO Nick Meyer.

Last year at Cannes, there were at least four $100 million titles -- virtually on a par with topline studio budgets -- that were shopped to international distributors. They included Sierra's Ender's Game and Focus Features' Cloud Atlas, directed by the trio of Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski. (Focus Features International will be showing off a rough cut of the film to buyers on May 15, just before Cannes kicks off.) But most of the hot indie titles this year are more modestly budgeted. At U.K.-based Dignity Distribution, which co-finances mainstream independent movies budgeted up to $15 million, Maggie Monteith says, "We are getting directors who have never done an independent film before. The challenge is to work with a director who can switch from doing big-budget to midbudget, who can make $1 look like $10 on the screen. Then we can fill the gap between the big studio blockbuster and the small art-house film."

THR's Complete 2012 Cannes Coverage

The one downside: Competition among sales companies will be fierce thanks to a crush of such new firms as Megan Ellison's Panorama and two companies that emerged out of the fall-out from the Lionsgate and Summit merger -- Good Universe and Mister Smith.  The dollars aside, why are so many willing to take the risk? Suggests Meyer, "I love the idea of selling a dream. It's such a great rush.