The Cannes Film Festival unfolds in two parts: what gets seen during the festival itself--and what happens afterwards.
Long after reviews roll by and prizes are awarded, the Cannes selections fan out to the global market, as distributors continue to pick up rights. (Sydney's Buzz has detailed sales listings.) While Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or and landed a distribution deal with Strand Releasing, these days, even movies with critical support can get lost in the ether, never to be heard from again.
Finally, who came out ahead and behind on their Cannes jaunt this year?
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Javier Bardem, Biutiful, the much-anticipated follow-up to Babel (which earned seven Oscar nominations in 2007 including best picture) has yet to land a domestic distributor. Who would have seen that coming?
One of the most divisive films at the festival, Biutiful arrived without pre-selling most of its global territories, which swiftly sold on the strength of strong reviews for the $25-million Spanish/Mexican co-production starring an incandescent Javier Bardem, who shared the Palme d'Or for best actor--a sign of a divided competition jury. The American press was also polarized, ranging from ardent praise to angry contempt as critics argued bitterly over the film. (No-show Jean-Luc Godard's brainy Socialisme ignited similar debates.)
Later at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Gonzalez Inarritu admitted that he was surprised at how the American media--as opposed to the global press corps--responded to the film as melodrama rather than tragedy. Other writers understood his intent, he said. (Here's my Cannes review.)
The problem for the producers, including Jon Kilik (Babel) and exec producer David Linde, the ex-Universal co-chairman, was that the gorgeously mounted but grim portrait of the lower depths of Barcelona needed unanimous acclaim to make a strong North American sale. And Bardem's awards worthiness is a double-edged sword. Does the Oscar-winning actor put butts in seats? Or will he cost a distrib the extra freight of an Oscar campaign? A Best Actor Oscar nomination and win does mean something at the art-house box office. But truth is, a movie like this needs a distrib willing to buy a gross, and that's almost impossible to find these days. The likely outcome: a distributor will demand P & A money before taking on the film. CAA is seeking backers (word is, a deal is imminent this week). The agency is invested in their client and wants him to come out a winner.
Another film that fared better with foreign over American media was Imagine's Robin Hood. Universal effectively used Cannes as the European promo launch for the $230-million epic, which ultimately scored higher grosses around the world than at home. The Festival was not thrilled that director Ridley Scott, sidelined by a knee injury, could not make the opening night ceremony. That left Russell Crowe to dominate the press conference, making clear how seriously he took the role of producer on the film. At the soggily dingy Majestic Beach opening night Robin Hood party, Crowe hunkered down with wife and pals in one corner while others of us waxed nostalgic over the great soirees of Cannes past, from Moulin Rouge and The Golden Bowl to Crowe's own L.A. Confidential. The studios just weren't spending this year.
Twentieth Century Fox
The studio didn't throw a party, but also took advantage of the global media to introduce Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which played better than Robin Hood. Stone finally broke his Cannes cherry (out of competition), and happily shared his encyclopedic knowledge of financial misdoings on Wall Street (where his father once worked) at a press junket at the Hotel du Cap, along with Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan, who (with Frank Langella) stirred up some supporting Oscar talk. That's why Fox is holding off until September to open the picture, which seems a long time after all the Cannes buzz has died down.
Sony Pictures Classics
The American acquisitions landscape at Cannes was dominated by the two companies, Sony Pictures Classics and IFC Films, who care about the kind of movies that are screening at the fest, and who have a working model for releasing them. SPC went into Cannes with three films: Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger played modestly well; Stephen Frears' bucolic romantic comedy Tamara Drewe was welcomed by the press as a refreshing palette cleanser starring young rising stars Gemma Arterton and Luke Evans; and Charles Ferguson's brainy Wall Street expose Inside Job was one of the best-reviewed films in a generally weak field (see criticWIRE). "The most blood-boiling documentary of the festival,” wrote The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Philips.
Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and acquisitions chief Dylan Leiner, who comb through all the Cannes offerings, English language or no, recognizing what they can and can't pull off, scooped up some of the fest's best-liked titles, including Mike Leigh's Another Year, which boasts an Oscar-worthy performance from Lesley Manville, and Grand Prix winner Of Gods and Men. In late June they grabbed Oliver Schmitz's South African drama Life, Above All, adapted from the 2005 Allan Stratton novel Chanda's Secrets.
With a much smaller staff, SPC manages to put through a larger number of films per year than studio subsids Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, which demand that their movies gross on a higher level, more than $10 million, and rarely buy finished films at Cannes. SPC's is a different, bare-bones approach, spending less to achieve less, but risking less, and in some ways, recognizing the limitations of today's marketplace.
IFC pursues its own low-spend, limited theatrical, VOD approach. Olivier Assayas's five-part TV series Carlos was already on the IFC line-up going into Cannes, where it was well-received. Per usual, IFC scooped up a number of fest titles, including competition entries Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche and directed by Abbas Kiarostami, and The Princess of Montpensier, Bertrand Tavernier's 16th-century costume drama, as well as other selections from Xavier Dolan (the off-kilter Canadian drama Heartbeats), rookie Antoine Blossier (the thrill-ride Prey), Gregg Araki (the gender-bending sci-fi story Kaboom) and Mexican filmmaker Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are, to be released through genre label IFC Midnight).
Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad
At Cannes 2009, ex-Picturehouse chief Bob Berney and new partner Bill Pohlad announced their new company, Apparition. Right before this year's festival, Berney left Pohlad in the lurch, taking advantage of an exit clause in their deal to depart. The surprised Pohlad swiftly canceled the planned trips of his acquisition team, some of whom were in mid-air at the time, and leaked a memo to the press. At Cannes, Berney indicated that he was unable to proceed with making deals at Cannes that he could not necessarily back up.
Again, it seemed that the two partners differed on the levels of marketing needed to support a release such as The Runaways. Indeed, Pohlad later let go of Berney's Sundance pick-up Welcome to the Rileys, another potential award contender that might require too much spending against potentially modest returns. In July, Pohlad brought on consultant Tom Ortenberg to supervise the release of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and slashed his distribution staff. And Berney has been negotiating with producer Graham King to start yet another distribution company for a producer seeking a guaranteed releasing for his product.
Thanks to Pohlad's long relationship with Summit's Patrick Wachsberger, Summit acquired Doug Liman's Valerie Plame thriller Fair Game, which is more thoughtful than most mainstream studio movies and yet not was not quite the right fit for the Cannes competition. Summit and Pohlad filled in the Tree of Life slot with another Sean Penn movie, but the star did not show up at the fest. Naomi Watts did the honors. She and Penn are both terrific as Washington operatives who lose control of their carefully calibrated lives. While Liman's ability to wed his brainy indie sensibility with accessible entertainment has worked in the past, Summit faces a challenge with this one. Yet the movie is both timely and compelling.
As speculation continues about the future of Focus, James Schamus and lieutenant Andrew Karpen were in Cannes pushing their strong slate both for Focus International (which delivered robust fest sales) and domestic. In Cannes they were celebrating their good instincts on pushing their doc Babies through and picking up The Kids Are All Right at Sundance, which turned out to be the right move. Their show reel was impressive, from Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, set to unveil in Venice, and Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (set for March), to Kevin Macdonald's period actioner Eagle of the Ninth (February), which boasts more epic scope (and a stronger cast) than B-flick Centurion which flopped in the U.K. Joe Wright's Hanna (April) stars Saoirse Ronan as another Kick-Ass toughie trained by her own father (Eric Bana).
The Weinstein Co.
Tout Cannes was waiting for the Weinsteins to stage a splashy announcement of a new deal (to be financed by magnate Ron Burkle) to acquire from Disney the Tiffany Miramax library they had built. But silence reigned as the Weinsteins threw a beach party for foreign distribs with no news to break. Harvey, working the phones, was unable to properly enjoy the Cannes splash made by Sundance pick-up Blue Valentine. Ryan Gosling was in better spirits after the gala at the Weinsteins' post-midnight Palais Stephanie rooftop party. He had flown in from L.A. on Lufthansa (where they offered him pajamas to sleep in) from filming his untitled marital comedy with Steve Carrell. He was relieved that his young date, Faith Wladyka (who plays his daughter in the film), fell asleep during the hard-R movie. Oscar talk continues for both Gosling and co-star Michelle Williams.
And post-festival, the Weinsteins (who had to give up their 200-film library to Goldman Sachs in order to lift their crushing debt burden) watched in horror as not only did their Miramax deal fall apart, but Ron Tutor and investors including David Bergstein looked to win the Miramax prize.
National Geographic Films
Last year, as head of Miramax, Daniel Battsek came away from Cannes without buying anything. This year, his old company on the block--victim of the tough specialty market--he came to the fest under the aegis of his new gig as president of National Geographic Films, which he plans to grow into a respected production, distribution and marketing operation for small films that fit the humanistic, global Nat Geo profile. Suggestion: If he's ready to jack up the label's profile, Biutiful may be just the sort of movie he's looking for.
My Cannes Top Ten:
1. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson) (SPC)
2. The Housemaid (Im Sangsoo) (no distrib)
3. Another Year (Mike Leigh) (SPC)
4. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance) (TWC)
5. Biuitiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) (no distrib)
6. Abel (Diego Luna) (no distrib)
7. Countdown to Zero (Lucy Walker) (Magnolia)
Good but not great
8. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) (no distrib)
9. Fair Game (Doug Liman) (Summit)
10. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen) (SPC)
Not so good:
Stones in Exile (Stephen Kijak) (NBC)
Shit Year (Cam Archer) (no distrib)
Outrage (Takeshi Kitano) (no distrib)
THR sees mediocrity, few stars and flat business. IndieWIRE looks at the Director’s Fortnight winners. Todd McCarthy bewails a lack of Cannes documentaries. Roger Ebert feels a Cannes lull. And finally Harper's Bazaar covers plenty of gorgeous couture on the Riviera.