Star-driven projects floating at Cannes

Buyers are already buzzing about several genre titles

CANNES -- Last year at the Cannes market, U.S. buyers were offered a package of director Darren Aronofsky and star Mickey Rourke for a comparatively cheap price in the low seven-figures.

But with Rourke a wild card and buyers in a state of extreme caution, none bit on the CAA-repped title, which wasn't screening footage. And when the movie -- and eventual Oscar nominee "The Wrestler" -- premiered at Venice and Toronto four months later, it went for a much higher $4 million.

For U.S. distributors, the Cannes market typically features more rough than diamonds. But an unusually large number of star-driven projects this year are floating without a U.S. home, inspiring hopes that there's another "Wrestler" out there that can be bought at a discount.

Several titles are causing even conservative studios to take notice and rummage in their pockets for the necessary dollars.

Buyers are particularly buzzing about "Blink," the feature that Stephen Gaghan has written and will direct based on an idea in Malcolm Gladwell's nonfiction bestseller.

Al Pacino is attached to play the older male lead, in which he reconnects with his estranged twentysomething son, an idealist who has a knack for reading people and situations very quickly. The Pacino character both mentors his son and uses him for his own financial gain on Wall Street.

Several A-list actors are circling the younger role on the William Morris Independent-packaged film, which is set to shoot in the fall. But even without that role cast, the prospect of a movie with such Oscar winners as Gaghan and Pacino has buyers galvanized.

Also on the prestige end of the spectrum is "Mother and Child" -- which sees Rodrigo Garcia direct and Annette Bening and Naomi Watts star in an adoption drama -- and "The Company Men," John Wells' feature directorial debut about the lives of downsized employees played by Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. The film, which CAA is repping for domestic, has just entered production and is splitting buyers, who are either attracted to or skeptical of the recession hook.

On the commercial side, the action thriller "Protection" -- which centers on a man who must protect a young Mexican woman the mob is pursuing -- is generating heat, with veteran action director Simon West ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider") in talks to direct and "Fast and Furious" star Paul Walker attached to play one of the leads.

In a similar vein, Millennium/Nu Image is producing and William Morris Independent is selling the John Curran arsonist-cop tale "Stone." Producers have confirmed that Robert De Niro and Edward Norton will star, but sources say Sienna Miller is now in talks to join the project, giving it a potential boost for distribs.

The abundance of star-laden projects without distributors is the result of an indie-world perfect storm -- a pipeline still filled with A-listers' passion projects and studio slates that continue to see diminishing slots. A number of projects, in fact, were set up at studios before they were put in turnaround and reincarnated as indie productions.

Making matters worse is a downturn in ancillary markets, which means buyers increasingly want to feel convinced of a films' theatrical potential before making a move.

"Without the safety net of DVD, a lot of buyers are trying to manage their dollars more carefully," said Stuart Ford of IM Global, which in addition to "Protection" and "Blink" also is selling foreign rights on the exploitation movie "Bitchslap" -- U.S. remains available -- and others.

U.S. audiences' appetite for dramas also is shrinking, with boxoffice increasingly dominated by action pics, thrillers and comedies; that's what's raising hopes for genre titles like Michael Winterbottom's serial-murder movie "The Killer Inside Me" and horror pic "And Soon the Darkness," both repped by Endeavor.

But the slump for dramas isn't stopping a group of hopefuls from making their Cannes play.

It's a deep list that includes Tony Goldwyn working-mother legal drama "Betty Anne Waters," the Natalie Portman-Don Roos collaboration "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" and the John Cameron Mitchell-directed "Rabbit Hole," about a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) that endures a tragedy.

Some projects peddled to U.S. distribs will try to do both: meld the commercial with the prestige.

"The Men Who Stare at Goats," Grant Heslov's directing debut starring George Clooney as a potentially psychic soldier, takes a look at the war in Iraq -- but with a comedic, paranormal twist.

Also topping that list is the Sean Penn/Naomi Watts starrer "Fair Game," which will show limited footage at the festival. "Game" is the true story of Valerie Plame that is nonetheless being positioned as a female "Bourne Identity" -- with the sales hook that it's directed by "Bourne" director Doug Liman.

Even when an immediate domestic deal doesn't materialize, a good market premiere can grease the wheel for an out-of-market sale later.

But buyers are quick to point out that, at best, the scripts they tear through and footage they scrutinize on the Croisette will yield limited results. "Even in a good year it's one out of 10," a buyer said. "The trick is finding the one. Or at least not missing it."