Murky outlook for midbudget pics


Executives descending on the Marche du Film for the industry's annual two-week frenzy are bringing the standard baggage with them--not the suitcases stuffed with screeners, one-sheets and promo posters--the psychological baggage weighing on the global film business.

That includes domestic-distribution disorder, flaccid presales syndrome and art-house shrinkage anxiety, not to mention Icelandic ash overload.
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Still, barring another volcanic eruption, most predict blue skies this year.

"Business, overall, everywhere is pretty good. It's definitely up from last year, which seemed to be just dead," says Bob Berney, whose distribution outfit, Apparition, picked up Jane Campion's 2009 Cannes Competition entry "Bright Star" and will be handling the U.S. release of Terrence Malick's latest, "Tree of Life."

All the same, he notes, "I don't think we're going to see many bidding wars. It's still a buyer's market."

Certainly it was that way at the Berlin market this year, even though business there was stronger than many anticipated. Presales for such big-budget fare as Icon's Mel Gibson starrer "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" or Hannibal Pictures' Al Pacino-Channing Tatum cop thriller "Son of No One" were balanced by solid business for critically acclaimed titles. Thus the Match Factory closed multiple territories on Semih Kaplanoglu's Golden Bear winner "Honey," while Norwegian crime comedy "A Somewhat Gentle Man" drew strong sales for Trust Nordisk, including a recently signed domestic deal with Strand Releasing.

But sellers gripe that the international market, following established U.S. trends, is becoming increasingly polarized.

"Indie films that sell are either at one end of the budget scale or the other; there is very little room for anything else," says David Garrett, president of Summit International, whose Cannes slate includes "Breaking Dawn," the final entry in the blockbuster "Twilight" franchise."

Mimran Schur Pictures’“Henry’s Crime”

It is very difficult to raise money for a $15 million-$30 million film in the market right now. The chances of preselling a 'Hurt Locker' or 'Slumdog Millionaire' are even slimmer than they were years ago."

"The days when people bought movies by the pound are over," adds Lisa Wilson of GK Films. "The bigger players in most international territories would rather step up and buy a locomotive picture than a few smaller or middle-of-the-road films."

GK is hoping to build some steam for its Johnny Depp starrer "The Rum Diary" (Bruce Robinson's adaptation of the novel by Hunter S. Thompson) and "London Boulevard," an East End gangster title starring Keira Knightley and Colin Farrell. Both films are in post and should be ready for the Marche.

While a handful of A-list titles will still demand top dollar in Cannes, international buyers have tightened their purse strings.

Presales estimates have fallen sharply from the dizzying heights of a few years back, putting pressure on producers to slim budgets and perfect their packaging before taking a title to market.

"You've seen a real collapse of the Asian market--Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China. Their numbers have fallen through the floor," says Jordan Schur, co-head of indie production company Mimran Schur Pictures. "You (cannot) expect to get much more than 30%-35% of your overall budget from presales. And you have to be extremely honest about the value of your picture internationally."

That's especially true for straight dramas, and Schur for one says he is staying away from them: "They aren't finding their niche in the market the way they used to."

Instead, Schur's company is following the playbook of many indies and going with cast driven genre films, like his first two titles: The psychological thriller "Stone," starring Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich; and "Henry's Crime," a heist comedy starring and co-produced by Keanu Reeves.

"In order to get a distributor to open a slot for you, especially domestically, you have to get them excited and that normally means name stars," Schur says. "Luckily, because the studios have reduced their production slates by 20%-25%, there's a lot fewer productions out there. Top talent is willing to work for less or make adjustments. These days, instead of $10 million-$15 million, you can get name actors for $5 million, $6 million, $7 million."

Buyers combing the Croisette this year will also be hunting for the overlooked gem, for the next "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," the Swedish-language crime thriller that has grossed more than $3million for Music Box Films in the U.S. and close to $100 million globally.

"We're looking for anything with crossover potential," Berney says, "anything that can break out of the very limited arthouse world and reach a wider audience."

Cannes' official lineup this year is typically auteur-heavy, but Berney points to two official entries--Mike Leigh's ensemble drama "Another Year," featuring Jim Broadbent; and Internet-inspired thriller "Chatroom" from "Ring" director Hideo Nakata, which screens in UnCertain Regard--as possible break-outs.

"One thing about Cannes is, it keeps surprising you," he notes. "Most often it's not the big, highlighted films but (at) the small market screening you duck into, where you find the real discoveries. The best strategy is just go and be ready to be surprised."