Cannes market beats expectations

Festival doomsayers proven wrong

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CANNES -- They came expecting a bomb. What they're getting, with possible deals still on the table, is not as bad as that.

Expectations were so low ahead of the 2009 Festival de Cannes that even modest successes seemed like home runs, while disappointments were barely felt.

From the prebuy market to Palais screenings, from finished-film acquisitions to the Croisette party scene, the mood has been subdued but not silent.

A certain lack of glitz has been distinctly felt at Lumiere galas, though that seems on the verge of turning around with movies starring Brad Pitt ("Inglourious Basterds") and Johnny Depp ("The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus") still set to unspool.

The market for agency packages did not take off as some had hoped. But it got a little boost Monday when "The Men Who Stare at Goats," the CAA-packaged project starring George Clooney, made enough progress that it was nearing a deal with U.S. mini-major Overture Films.

While it wasn't likely domestic prebuys for projects that have been peddled here -- such as Stephen Gaghan's "Blink" and George Gallo's business drama "Middle Men" -- would materialize in the coming days, some had gained enough traction that a spate of deals could happen before or at Toronto.

Still, some buyers raised the possibility that the slow market for packages could foretell a period when a whole clutch of star-laden films sit without distribution at festivals.

"Get ready for big stars without distribution," said one buyer, who also noted that some of those stars could persuade the studios where they have overall deals to pick up films as part of their larger relationship.

U.S. sellers have had better luck abroad, although Cannes' usual flood of international pre-sales has been more of a trickle.

This year has seen a strengthening of a long-simmering trend of the big distributors -- Constantin, Alliance Films, Canal Plus -- cherrypicking titles instead of buying in bulk.

"It's still a buyers market. There are fewer companies out there that can put up the money for bigger titles and we can afford to be choosy," said Markus Zimmer, managing director at Germany's Concorde Films.

"What we're hearing from the buyers is 'I'm only buying a must-have movie,' " Lionsgate Motion Picture Group president Joe Drake said. "For them, a must-have movie is one that a distributor believes can compete against major studio films."

Lionsgate found eager buyers for such titles as the still-shooting "Five Killers," an a Robert Luketic-helmed action-adventure romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl; Mandate Pictures' romantic comedy "The Baster," starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman; and sequel "Saw 6."

Two Studiocanal titles were hot sellers: The animated 3-D turtle film "Around the world in 50 Years" sold across the globe, with Universal Music Group taking U.S. rights, and Atom Egoyan's "Chloe," which has virtually sold out, though U.S. buyers have yet to bite.

Studiocanal topper Harold van Lier told THR the French giant has done "between 8 and 10 times the business we did last year."

U.S. projects expected to close big territory deals before the market wraps include Inferno's "Killer Elite," which has Jason Stratham attached; Summit's "Fair Game;" IM Global's "Blink;" John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole"; and GK Films' Johnny Depp starrer "The Rum Diaries."

For buyers selling foreign-language art house to the world, business has been slow but steady.

Prokino's German pick-up of Joann Sfar's upcoming biopic "Gainsbourg" from Kinology, the Match Factory's sale of Israeli/German co-production "Ajami" to the U.K. (Vertigo Films) and France (Ad Vitam) have been typical of the sort of bread-and-butter deal memos that have defined this market.

Similarly, Asia's sellers have scraped through Cannes with just adequate performances.

Korean majors CJ and Showbox and indie sales house Fine Cut each managed a combination of high-profile and volume deals. Ditto for Media Asia, which is representing many of the biggest Hong Kong and Chinese titles.

But prices and attitudes have been soggy.

"Overall the market was slow," said Ricky Tse, Media Asia's head of sales. "We can feel that many people were not here and that has been reflected in lower prices and caution all round."

If the market has sometimes exceeded low expectations, the U.S. appetite for festival titles has been weak.

While some were predicting a boutique-buyer binge, the acquisition market has proved slow in the first seven days of the Cannes action. Only three movies ("The White Ribbon," "Tales from a Golden Age" and "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky") that played in a Cannes section were picked by a U.S. distrib.

Still, some buyers said that a good screening for "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" on Friday could jumpstart talks for that film, while other titles in play -- including Alejandro Amenabar's big-budget "Agora" and Jacques Audiard's critics' fave "A Prophet" were both showing some movement.

And a late-fest buyer rush would not be atypical.

"Buyers like IFC, Magnolia and Sony Classics tend to buy in clusters toward the end of a festival, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a few more deals," one U.S. buyer said.

Rebecca Leffler, Stuart Kemp, Gregg Kilday and Patrick Frater contributed to this report.