A Sense of Porpoise

A powerful documentary struggles to pay for Cannes.

LONDON -- It's a warm April morning and the boardroom at the Works International is starting to heat up. Less than six weeks before the Marche du Film lifts off, managing director Carl Clifton, sales manager Clare Crean and marketing guru Juliette Gill are wrestling with how to promote their dolphin-activist documentary "The Cove."

The issue is buttons vs. badges. Not who will get which badge at Cannes -- that infamous ranking of social standing -- but whether to go with small round promo buttons for "The Cove" or metal label badges. With margins tight, economic conditions difficult and Cannes as expensive as ever, every penny counts.

One-thousand button badges with a handmade logo or phrase -- and probably a dolphin -- will eat up £250 ($300) from a tight promotional budget. Metal lapel pins will cost at least double that. A no-brainer for the team. Buttons it is.

These are the kinds of decisions that face the sellers of small but worthy films that don't come with studio budgets.

"The Cove," directed by Louie Psihoyos, was executive produced by Jim Clark, the founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. An inventor and venture capitalist, Clark founded OPS to create films and stills to raise awareness of the plight of the oceans. He caught the attention of U.S. issue-based banner Participant Media, which put up the cash to make the film.

"The Cove" also features former dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry -- famous for training Flipper to wave to Sandy and Porter in the old 1970s TV show -- along with a team of activists, filmmakers and freedivers. O'Barry has spent the past 35 years trying to free dolphins from captivity. In the film, he and his motley crew embark on a covert mission to penetrate a hidden cove in Japan.

The movie unfolds like a thriller, with the filmmakers resorting to night vision goggles, hidden military grade cameras and sheer force of will to avoid Japanese authorities intent on stopping them from filming. Costs for mounting a market screening during Cannes can be eye-watering in a market where buyers are renegotiating existing deals, let alone splashing the cash on new ones.

The Works team has booked two market screenings, and is quietly confident that its strategy of not showing the film before screenings will pay off.

"We're not a major (studio) that can spend millions (of dollars) to create buzz for the film," Clifton says. "And anyway, given the nature of the film, that would be inappropriate."