Cannes of worms for indies

Climate of risk-aversion among distributors takes toll on acquisitions

At May's Festival de Cannes, buyers rushed to see the latest work from three American auteurs: Steven Soderbergh's "Che," James Gray's "Two Lovers" and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York." But the fest ended without any of the films clinching a U.S. sale.

It took two months for the $20 million-plus "Synecdoche" to land a U.S. distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics. 2929 Prods. gave up on finding an outside buyer for its $12 million "Lovers," deciding to release it through sister company Magnolia Pictures. And Soderbergh's $65 million "Che" is still searching for a home.

The tough market the three films encountered reflects an indie film industry rattled by folding specialty divisions, economic woes and the challenge of keeping films in theaters. A climate of risk- aversion not seen since the death of auteur-driven films in the 1970s has set in.

"I guarantee you 'Synecdoche' and 'Lovers' would've been bought quickly a couple years ago," Overture Films CEO Chris McGurk said, "but now that there are fewer buyers, and fewer healthy buyers, they both sat there."

Soderbergh's Spanish-language Che Guevara biopic encountered resistance despite its star Benicio Del Toro earning best actor honors at Cannes.

The Weinstein Co. had been in exclusive pre-Cannes negotiations for North American rights with seller Wild Bunch based on footage shown in Berlin. But a deal couldn't be done before "Che's" Cannes premiere, so both parties agreed to table further discussions till then.

Wild Bunch head Vincent Maraval hoped to get a $10 million pickup to pay back investors immediately but now says his company would need just a $4 million deal with longer-term payouts. Four indie offers are on the table, though not the Weinstein Co., he said.

Soderbergh wants to release the two-part, four-hour-plus film as one movie in limited December openings. He'd then like to release the first part in January and the second in February. Soderbergh has cut five to seven minutes from each half, but a potential distributor who suggested one three-hour cut was ruled out immediately.

Maraval said a P&A commitment isn't an issue. "Our joke is that you need to have 'guerrilla marketing,' " he said.

Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's 2929 was looking for at least $3.5 million for North American rights to "Lovers," the story of an emotionally disturbed man forced to choose between two women. But when four offers came in in the $1 million-$2 million range for the Joaquin Phoenix-Gwyneth Paltrow starrer, 2929 opted to hand the film over to Magnolia.

It's the same strategy 2929 took when "The Life Before Her Eyes" failed to attract offers in Toronto and "What Just Happened?" didn't spark a bidding frenzy in Sundance. Given that Cuban and Wagner also own Landmark Theatres, DVD, pay TV and VOD outlets, 2929's Marc Butan said, "Even at our most pessimistic model, we are doing OK."

"Lovers" will bow early next year with New York and Los Angeles openings. Butan said it's not yet clear whether the film also will go out via Magnolia's Ultra VOD day-and-date platform.

SPC plans to debut "Synecdoche," Kaufman's directorial debut starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a writer staging a surreally ambitious play, in the fall.

The film scored a five-minute standing ovation and some glowing reviews at Cannes. One indie executive called it "a flawed masterpiece," but other execs, unsettled by the recent closure of Picturehouse and Warner Independent, saw only its high commercial risk factor.

After Cannes, Kaufman made only minor technical tweaks. Several indies, convinced that the film would need careful word-of-mouth, made modest bids. SPC's complicated, winning deal offered the filmmakers a lower upfront payment in return for significant long-term performance bonuses and a wide release commitment.

"We met with the filmmakers two years ago and have pursued it ever since, but the only stumbling block was that the budget led to a bigger financial upfront than we were willing to do," SPC co-head Michael Barker said.

While the major studios, specialty divisions and indie distributors mostly left Cannes empty-handed, SPC and IFC Films benefited from the market downtown. Both acquired the largest number of Official Selection and market titles in their history, partly because the lack of frenzied competition led to dropping prices.

SPC rejects IFC's day-and-date model, but both look to create a valuable library of titles to attract viewers over the long term.

"Having a meaningful theatrical run to give a good profile to a film, whether people see it in theaters, on DVD or TV, is our mantra," Barker said. He insists it's "tough but not impossible" for indie films to break through the crowded marketplace. And, like IFC, SPC takes pride in not overpaying.

IFC releases about 25 films a year day-and-date in select cities and on VOD. Part of its sales pitch to emerging and foreign filmmakers is the American dream: More than 45 million homes are able to access their films.

IFC's Arianna Bocco said that this year definitely was "a buyer's market." And while IFC offers a wide variety of deals to filmmakers, she said "it's also just very appealing for many filmmakers to get exposure in the U.S. that will help them with their next projects." Even if the deal offers little in the way of reimbursement.

As filmmakers who settled for less upfront at Cannes learned, less-than-commercial films now need to be made cheaply, and beggars can't be choosers.(partialdiff)