Why Cannes Is Going Mainstream (Cannes)

Cannes Film Festival

Commercial fare such as "Drive" and Paul W.S. Anderson’s "Pompeii" project dominate festival and market lineups.

Amid all the talk of the auteurs, cultural imperatives and sniffy attitudes toward U.S. studio fare, this year’s Marche du Film will be dominated by one dirty word and all its forms: commercial, commerciality, commercialism, comme toujours.

As the movie industry survivors -- from the studios and affiliates to low down and dirty independents -- emerge blinking into a much-changed landscape after three years shaped by economic turmoil, the banking crisis and narrowed business opportunities, the need for a clever commercial bent is more essential than ever.

Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that there are two strands of projects on the auction floor on the eve of the market. On the one hand are the $100 million plus packages such as Paul W.S. Anderson’s take on the story of Pompeii complete with a hefty price tag being asked by Summit International this week across international territories, or Ender’s Game, a live-action sci-fi movie based on the novel by Orson Scott Carr to be directed by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and being sold in Cannes by Sierra/Affinity. And Focus Features Intl. is selling the $100 million budgeted Cloud Atlas, starring Tom Hanks.

On the other hand are the myriad projects with cast at budgets of $30 million or lower. Projects at this level, starring A-listers such as Meryl Streep, Robert Downey Jr. or Jason Statham, feature heavily along the Croisette.

“There’s nothing in between the two at the moment,” says Lionsgate U.K. chief Zygi Kamasa, who lands in Cannes wearing both a buyers hat and a production financier badge. “It’s because if you buy something with a budget above say $30 million and below $100 million and they fail then simply everyone loses their shirt. At the high end, everyone is gambling on whether or not those projects might be the next big franchise.”

“The whole market has become very polarized,” agrees Summit International exec David Garrett. “Because of the decline of the DVD market and the TV sales market, more and more is concentrated on generating revenue out of theatrical sales, which leads to a greater focus on bigger titles.”

There will certainly be no shortage of high-end product in Cannes 2011, from FilmNation’s The Brothers Grimm: Snow White directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Julia Roberts to Sierra/Affinity's Jason Statham actioner Parker to the thriller Better Living Through Chemistry with Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Garner from Ealing Metro to Cry Macho, the kidnapping drama which has Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to star, marking his return to the big screen, and which QED International is bringing to the party.

“There’s a lot more mainstream product around this year,” says Bernhard zu Castell, managing director of German distributor Universum Films. “It’s often the case that everyone is chasing the same films, but this year there might almost be enough to go around.”

Even in Cannes' Competition lineup, a haven for the auteur and obscure, there are several titles which could turn up at a multiplex near you — such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn or Drive from Nicolas Winding Refn, a crime thriller featuring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks.

With the crossover success of The King’s Speech and Black Swan last year, buyers will also have an eye out for titles that look art house but can play blockbuster.

“We are interested in commercial art house films, commercial specialist films and out and out commercial films. They don’t always have to carry a $100 million budget price tag,” says Ealing Metro topper Will Machin, citing Ealing’s new title, a Nina Simone biopic starring Mary J. Blige, as an example of a film that can be both commercial art house and specialist movie in one.

“The question is whether there still is a market for full-on art house, or will all the cash in Cannes flow toward the mainstream?

“Smaller, more indie films are definitely more of a challenge,” says Julie Sultan, head of sales at new U.S. sales/acquisitions/financing group W2 Media. “With the downturn in the economy, the bigger pictures are more alluring. A lot of indie buyers worldwide are looking to step up and reach for these bigger films that can compete with the studio pictures.”

But others say reports of the death of art house have been greatly exaggerated.

“People have been saying that since Little Miss Sunshine and Garden State and Hustle and Flow,” said one major U.S. sales agent, dismissively. “The reality is, Blue Valentine got made, and that’s more of an art film.”

Tom Bernard of Sony Classics, a Cannes veteran, also thinks that whatever the economic pressure toward sure-bet movies, the Marche du Film is still the place to mine arthouse gems.

“We got Secret in Their Eyes two years ago out of the market, and for the specialized business it did $8 million," he said. "In a Better World we got in the market, it won the Academy Award. Every year there’s good movies there. If you’re looking for a studio blockbuster (Cannes) probably not the place to look.”

Jay A. Fernandez contributed to this report.