Signs of the times at Cannes

Scaled-back billboards, bashes and buzz set fest's tone

CANNES -- Walking down the Croisette on Monday in the eerie calm before the storm, it's striking, amid all the prepping of official fest venues, how few posters line the normally marketing-manic street.

There are to be sure the inevitable come-ons for Jean-Claude Van Damme pics "Karate" and "The Eagle Path" as well as for George Gallo's "Middle Men," an otherwise respectable looking drama that boasts this excruciating logline: "Business is a lot like sex. Getting in is easy ... pulling out is hard."

And the Carlton, the traditional hub of promotional hoopla, already sports colorful banners mounted like movie screens over the driveway for Pixar's opening-night pic "Up" as well as panels on the side of the building for Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."

But "The Lovely Bones" poster that adorns one end of the building is understated, and the entrance -- the same spot that was dressed up like a temple for Indiana Jones last year -- has an unremarkable set piece for "G.I. Joe."

Most American, European and Asian execs are still making last-minute preparations before flying to the south of France, but when they get here, the mood on the Croisette might still be distinctly subdued.

Party invites continue to trickle in to attendees, but Vanity Fair has nixed its annual Hotel du Cap soiree and blowouts from delegations as far-flung as Japan and Germany are being scaled back.

On the sales side, a number of star-driven packages will be shopped in the market by a host of U.S agencies, but the bidding is expected to be more restrained forthe films playing the festival itself. Six-figure deals are likely to be more popular than seven-figure deals, and smaller, more specialized distribs are expected to be the most active.

In some cases, deals for alternative platforms like video on-demand are expected to take precedence over big theatrical sales.

Last year, for instance, 2929's "Two Lovers," toplined by Joachin Phoenix, came in with hype but did not land a big deal at the festival. Its subsequent release through video on-demand platforms proved as lucrative -- if not actually more lucrative -- than a traditional theatrical release.

The loudest buzz for U.S. domestic rights follows for two titles repped by Cinetic Media -- Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," the Heath Ledger movie that screened last week for buyers in Los Angeles, and Alejandro Amenabar's "Agora," a $60 million historical piece starring Rachel Weisz.

Other auteur-driven titles -- Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric," Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" and Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" -- are generating interest because of their apparent commercial potential. Von Trier's movie is an English-language tale with genre elements; Loach is, for a change, tackling comedy.

Still, the biggest titles playing the festival are probably generating heat more for their pedigree than for their sales potential.

The festival features an unusually large number of former Palme d'Or winners (five) who are unspooling new pics -- Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola and Jane Campion as well as Loach and von Trier.

Several of these films already have U.S. distribution plans in place. Those that don't can only hope the sun will shine on their sales prospects as well.