Less deal news and more 'ewwws' mark a shift in the meaning of Cannes


Here's the tenor of the e-mails I've been getting: "You're not missing anything" and "There's nothing to buy here." MIf you thought these were complaints from someone who got to the Circuit City closeout sale a day late, you'd be wrong.

These are comments from Cannes, where it has become practically de rigueur to trash the event or at least suggest one's insouciant dismissal of its relevance.

Because I didn't go this year, I imagine those sending me such missives feel a tad guilty; after all, they are the ones frolicking in the Riviera revelry and imbibing rosé on the beach.

Still, they can't all be just pretending to be deferential to us folks who aren't eating croissants on the Croisette. They might be on to something.

The global film and TV businesses are changing so rapidly that festivals and markets are starting to appear, well, last century. For some years now, most of these events have devolved from deal-driven bazaars into carefully choreographed promotional platforms or simply opportune places for the Hollywood majors to talk to their far-flung staffs.

Actual dealmaking? Forget it. Depending on the size and complexity of the transaction, an agreement could take legions of lawyers or be done with a simple e-mail exchange. In any case, who wants nosy journalists around?

As long as the global economy seemed to be percolating along, no company really seemed to mind sending phalanxes of folks to these events, whether deals were done or not. All that networking was worth the price of admission. But now that cost-consciousness is the corporate virtue par excellence, being openly indignant over the cost of a jus de pamplemousse at the Carlton no longer is viewed as tasteless. (Useless it is, but not tasteless.)

Even Cannes — which in its 62nd edition is still the most seductive draw for cineastes — is feeling the disconnect, or at least the recessionary winds.

Yes, the sunshine generally obliges, the starlets still strut their stuff and everyone adheres to its black-tie rituals as rigorously as to those, say, of the Catholic Church. But when it comes to making deals for movies — those completed and those just a scribble on the proverbial cocktail napkin — very little actually is signed, sealed and delivered in the space of one of these events.

How often do we read that deals are expected to pick up or important movies to be delivered by the time of Berlin or Cannes or Toronto or Venice or the AFM, and yet things don't ever seem to kick into gear? Journalists chasing such stories spend most of their time in frustrated anticipation or get overly excited about relatively modest movies finally getting a pickup by one distributor or another. Of the hundreds of movies on offer at the Cannes market, only a handful rise to the level of commercial distribution, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Where once a Harvey Weinstein bestrode the indie world and all other comers were bested in furious bidding battles as journalists came away exhausted by the drama of it all, the few deals consummated nowadays tend to be with polite cable channels or cautious start-ups — and for sums almost too paltry to cover a dinner at the Hotel du Cap. (Even the Weinstein Co. plays a more subdued game these days.)

Not that it's the fault of any festival or market. The indie film biz is being whiplashed as money to make, market and distribute such pics becomes ever scarcer and the TV outlets abroad that underpinned it all no longer care that much about movies. Moreover, Hollywood studios are putting more emphasis on tentpoles and closing or amalgamating their specialty labels.

Audiences worldwide are following suit, piling in for the "Star Treks" and "Wolverines" and ignoring the efforts of all but their own top-tier local filmmakers. More people are equipped with video cameras but not necessarily talent, hence sifting through the chaff to come up with the wheat is like finding a needle in a haystack. Some will say it was ever thus, but they probably would agree that making the money back has gotten harder.

Even auteurs who have been mainstays of the Festival de Cannes — Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, Ken Loach, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Haneke — occasionally stumble. This year, several of them seemingly did, though I'm only judging by some of the reviews.

Whenever I read a review where the emphasis is on how great the visuals in a movie are, I start to worry. That was the case with The Hollywood Reporter's review of von Trier's In Competition entry "Antichrist," which apparently suffers from incoherent storytelling and over-the-top violence. It was licensed for the U.S. by IFC late in the festival, but again for a sum and platform much less ambitious than such movies were bought for a decade ago.

One telling sign of this Cannes is the level of violence in many Competition and sidebar entries, including von Trier's — a fact first pointed out by our chief film critic, Kirk Honeycutt. It's telling because the pressure to remain an iconic auteur, and to make money at it, might be driving some of these filmmakers to be more, well, out there in their subject matter.

"The conventions of genre filmmaking are being masterfully twisted," is no doubt how some buffs are describing the phenomenon in those late-night gatherings on the Rue d'Antibes; others simply might find these movies too gory.

It's ironic because for so many years Europeans in particular wagged their fingers at U.S. movies for their alleged excessive violence and sexual prudery and vaunted their own sophisticated cinematic artistry. Now it would seem an entire contingent of auteurs has upped the ante when it comes to graphic scenes of rape, torture and the like.

At a festival news conference with von Trier, which I watched online, one journalist took the director to task, asking him to justify the violence in "Antichrist" because it appeared, to him at least, un-Cannes-worthy.

(The Dane declined to explain himself, doggedly sticking to his Dogme as the world's greatest film director.)

Being in Cannes is a heady trip. Deals or not, it's hard not to be seduced, even from afar.

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.