23 May, 2008

Americans Hold Back On Buying At Cannes

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Friday, May 23------The whooshing sound that you hear is the rapid departure of film professionals leaving in droves as the Cannes Film Festival enters its final weekend. In fact, professionals have been leaving en masse since Wednesday, with film sales offices at the Marche du Film and the local hotels virtual ghost towns. The American distribution contingent, which were on the Croisette in great numbers, have left Cannes without many major acquisitions. The tepid Cannes market continued what's been a dismal cycle for the finished-film market that began last year in Toronto.

Theatrical grosses have dropped, there's been a glut of product, and then came the closing of Warners' specialty divisions, Picturehouse Entertainment, Warner Independent Pictures and New Line Cinema. The result, insiders say, is that there will be fewer independent releases this year, and one of the casualties will certainly be for European and international films looking to North America as its major overseas market. With “foreign language” films making up a scant 2% of the box office (upped to 5% if you count English-language films from the UK, Canada and Australia), an already dismal situation could get a lot worse.

The marketplace is definitely soft. A case in point: Miramax Films. The company made a big splash last year with its $3 million purchase of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but its only Cannes-related acquisition was the film opener Blindness, which received very mixed reviews and whose box office potential seems decidedly limited. Last year, studios in a bidding war for the James Gray-directed We Own The Night (which eventually was sold for nearly $12 Million to Columbia Pictures and grossed less than $10 Million in the US), were less enthused with Gray’s current Cannes film, Two Lovers, which so far has not been picked up for U.S. distribution (highly unusual considering its cast of Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow).

Two other high-profile American films that were screened in competition (Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour epic Che and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synedoche New York) are also leaving Cannes without a North American distribution deal. Even the more commercially oriented Cannes market failed to seduce buyers, who took a wait-and-see attitude toward movies like Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler.

Several of the most successful distribution companies (Paramount Vantage, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight) have gotten into the producing game, making their own films in-house and relying less on finished films for acquisitions. This has been a risky strategy in the past, but distributors with enough capital and clout continue to put themselves into the in-house production world, even though a “flop” of one of those films can negatively affect the company’s final ledgers more than an outside acquision.

One of the dismaying trends at this year’s Cannes was distributors concerns that audiences will stay away from “downer films”, films that are hard-hitting and somewhat depressing (despite this year’s Oscar wins by the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood). This reluctance by major American distributors to gamble on more artistic and gritty films has left many prominent European films showcased at the Festival without a distribution deal in place (although the situation could change in the coming weeks). Films that currently have no homes in the United States and Canada include Delta (Kornel Mundruczo), Entres Les Murs (Laurent Cantet), Gomorra (Matteo Garrone), Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino), La Frontiere De L’Aube (Phillipe Garrel), Le Silence De Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) and Palermo Shooting (Wim Wenders).

European sellers are not necessarily sympathetic to American fears over less easily marketable films. As one European sales agent was quoted in one of the Cannes dailies: “The Americans are lazy, they're arrogant and too scared to do any deals. I tell them: get some balls -- your companies are all going down the toilet, maybe now's the time to get some films before it all collapses." The truth is that the prices for a film (most now figured in euros or pounds sterling) make it a quite expensive investment for smaller distribution firms. But prices tend to drop sharply in the weeks following the Festival, giving more cautious American companies an opportunity to come on board. It also allows smaller companies, that are not subsidized by a large studio or media conglomerate, a chance to snag top-line films, which has been happening more and more.

However, there have been some bright spots amidst all the gloom. IFC Entertainment, which includes theatrical distributor IFC Films and the Independent Film Channel cable network, was one of the few American companies on a buying spree. In total, the company picked up seven new titles, including Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, Josh Safdie's The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Steve McQueen’s Hunger (which opened the Un Certain Regard section) and Anna Melikyan's Mermaid. IFC Entertainment seems more open to buying films, since its distribution model includes day-and-date releases in both theaters and video on demand on cable and satellite television networks (giving audiences the choice of seeing a new film in a movie theater or in the comfort of their own homes). While this model is still controversial, it has given the company the confidence to realize full revenue potential in a film's initial release.

Another mid-sized American company, First Independent Pictures announced that it has acquired that US distribution rights for the coming of UK coming-of-age film Sixty Six, produced by Working Title Films. Directed by Paul Weiland, the family comedy's title refers to the year that England won the World Cup. Already garnering attention from US Jewish Film Festivals, the film was executive produced by Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones' Diary, Love Actually, Notting Hill), with a cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Marsan, Stephen Rea, Catherine Tate, and up and comer Gregg Sulkin. The film is planned to be released in New York, then Los Angeles, in early August of this year

On a final positive note, German giant Bavaria Film International made a sale to Canada’s Mongrel Media of the latest film from Doris Dorrie. Cherry Blossoms-Hanami has played at various U.S. film festivals but still does not have a U.S. distributor in place. Such is the case for many European films, making the film festival circuit one of the only places to catch the latest film from some of European’s film auteurs. It is hard to say if this situation will change in the coming months. However, what has always proven to be true, when adversity strikes, it is also accompanied by opportunity. So look for the good, the bad, and the ugly as European films continue their struggle to be seen on the large screen in the United States and Canada.

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