By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 10, 2011 at 2:16AM
It's a new Cannes. On the eve of the fest opening Wednesday, Focus Features, which has been on a buying spree of late, acquired domestic distribution rights to rookie director Lorene Scafaria's "pre-apocalyptic" comedic romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. Indian Paintbrush and Mandate Pictures are partnering on financing the Anonymous Content film, which Lionsgate is selling overseas. It starts production in Los Angeles this May. Scafaria (Mandate's Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) wrote the original screenplay about two people who fall in love at the worst possible time. "I want to shake it up a bit," says Schamus, who is known for being risk-averse. "That doesn't mean go crazy. It means behaving less predictably on the business side. We're able to work with filmmakers and let them do crazy stuff."
As Cannes market attendance is back to pre-2008 levels, industry insiders agree that more movies will be sold in the festival market this year: not just completed films, but unfinished pictures still in production. Market screenings of footage on such pictures as Walter Salles' On the Road, which was not ready for festival prime time, are hot tickets. Finally, after a torrid sales pace at Sundance in January, a cautious buyer's market--in which distributors sit back and cherry-pick the best titles at festivals, with audience and critical reaction in hand--has turned into a seller's market. New buyers like FilmDistrict, Open Road and Relativity are in the hunt, and may push up prices, forcing buyers to take chances earlier in the game. The glut of English-language titles that once crowded the market has abated, with more buyers-- and fewer films.
This does not mean that the market for foreign fare is improving. While Music Box's relatively accessible Catherine Deneuve vehicle Potiche is doing business, other films such as Sony Pictures Classics' provocative Oscar-winner In a Better World (Susanne Bier) and Canadian foreign nominee Incendies are struggling to lure audiences. Commes toujours, Music Box, IFC and SPC (which boasts four films in the Cannes selection, including opening night's Midnight in Paris from Woody Allen and Pedro Almodovar'sThe Skin I Live In) will still acquire foreign films. But they won't overpay for them. "In the foreign language art house sector there seems to be about the same quantity and ratio of good to not so good," says Music Box managing director Edward Arentz, "with the occasional brilliant film that there always has been." (See indieWIRE story on VOD's impact on foreign imports.)
Focus Features chairman James Schamus, en route to the Croisette to supervise president Andrew Karpen and Focus International chief Alison Thompson's herculean annual foreign sales effort, called Seeking a Friend “a funny story about the human condition, and about how love is the only thing that can save us all." Schamus says Focus, which does not have any films in the official selection this year, is not in the market for acquisitions--unless something hits them over the head. "We have a lot on our shelves," he says, having also just announced another partnership with Indian Paintbrush, Wes Anderson's currently filming Moonrise Kingdom, starring Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton.
Focus International is also selling Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis' modestly-budgeted film based on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, for which Warner Bros. acquired domestic rights. Schamus raves about the screenplay, which is a daunting feat of adaptation of a sprawling literary work. "Something cosmic is going on," Schamus says of reading the first 20 pages, which quickly sucked him in. He compares the film, which toplines accessible marquee draw Tom Hanks, to a head trip like Inception: "It will be awe-inspiring for film buffs." The Wachowskis, who do not do press, will be in Cannes to help woo potential buyers. Schamus describes Larry and Lana Wachowski as "warm, smart and ridiculously sane."
Also selling in the Cannes market is Focus's Paul Weitz film version of Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, which just wrapped in New York, and thus will not be screening any market footage. Focus is also selling third-party sales title Mr. Pip, starring Hugh Laurie under Andrew Adamson's direction.
Also in production for Focus is Notting Hill director Roger Michell's pre-World War II Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray as Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, who hosts a visit from The King's Speech's George VI and Queen Elizabeth to his country estate. "It's a perfect part for Bill," says Schamus. "He was a bit of a rake." Richard Nelson adapted his own radio play, which was developed by Film4; Kevin Michell, Loader and David Aukin are producers.
Also screening in the market is An Education director Lone Scherfig's upcoming romance One Day, based on the Brit bestseller which also sold well stateside, starring Brit-accented Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. An early trailer ran into some fansite grumblings, but Schamus insists it played well to the film's target female demo. The company has abandoned an initial platform strategy and will release the film on over 1000 screens on August 19.
Focus also recently announced a deal with LAIKA to partner on Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s 3-D stop-motion comedy ParaNorman.
Recent indie pick-ups include Mike Mills’ father-son drama Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, acquired at Toronto, which goes out June 3 after a festival circuit ramp-up. John Madden’s Miramax espionage thriller The Debt, starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, and rising Tree of Life star Jessica Chastain, is set for August 31. And writer/director Dee Rees’ contemporary drama Pariah, which premiered at Sundance, is set for year-end release. "We still have the space to get behind these kinds of smaller films," says Schamus.
While Focus is settling for modest ancillary returns on The Eagle ($19.5 million domestic) and It's Kind of a Funny Story ($6.3 million), the company is happy with the numbers on Joe Wright’s thriller Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett ($37.6 million to date) , as well as Cary Joji Fukunaga’s critical and audience spring hit Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender ($9 million) which Schamus plans to release on DVD at summer's end as it completes its international roll-out with a prestige UK release-- for maximum impact on BAFTA. An Academy campaign will follow.