For low-budget filmmakers, Cannes has two faces.
There’s the formidable one with its overwhelming scale, glitter and competing hype that can swallow up an indie without a trace. But for a lucky few, there’s the friendlier (though unpredictable) side that can catapult an unknown director into the international limelight…and fire up sales for his or her movie.
Last year’s Cinderella story was Whit Stillman, the first-time American director who garnered rave reviews for “Metropolitan,” which became an arthouse hit.
“Metropolitan” sold everywhere but Holland at Cannes,” recalls Stillman, whose $300,000 film appeared in last year’s Directors Fortnight, the festival-within-the-festival that has traditionally been Cannes’ home for low-budget U.S. productions. One hour before Stillman left for Cannes, “Metropolitan” was picked up by New Line. “We recovered all our production costs from that sale, so Cannes was all gravy,” says the director.
Sales agent Jon Pierson believes that Cannes is “costly and not that effective” for independents. But, he adds, going to Cannes is “well worth it if you’re in a visible section of the festival. That gives you a big leg up.”
In 1986 Pierson repped Spike Lee’s first feature film, the $175,000 “She’s Gotta Have It,” which racked up $500,000 in sales in the last 48 hours of the festival. Another indie hit, Lizzie Borden’s “Working Girls” also saw key deals closed or initiated at Cannes, Pierson says.
Likewise, Charles Lane’s “Sidewalk Stories” caught the eye of Island Pictures and the U.K. distributor Oasis, who later split a world-rights deal. And Keith McNally’s “End Of The Night” has almost made back its production budget from interest generated at Cannes last year, according to Pierson.
Small window this year
This year, however, fewer lowbudget independents will have this chance. Of those films invited to the official festival sections, only the experimental narrative “Trumpet # 7,” in the Critics Week, clearly falls within the camp once occupied by Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch. Made for $200,000, including deferred crew and cast salaries, this is the first feature by director Adrian Velicescu, who immigrated from Rumania to the U.S. six years ago.
The rest of the “new” talent are either industry veterans taking their first shot at the director’s helm (actor Sean Penn), directors whose prior credits are in television or theater (actor Bill Duke, who directed “The Killing Floor” for “American Playhouse,” Stephen Gyllenhaal, whose many credits include “A Family Of Spies” and “Twin Peaks,” and theater/opera director Peter Sellars), or true neophytes whose projects were embraced early on by a studio (Columbia Pictures’ “Boyz N The Hood,” written and directed by 22-year-old John Singleton).
“It’s a little discouraging that so few truly independently financed and released films are being included,” says Independent Feature Project program and market director Sandy Mandelberger.
He views this year’s selections as “more commercial” and says “I don’t want to think that Steve Soderbergh two years ago was a total fluke. I’m just hoping that some good films are not being overlooked.”
In light of the festival selections, the IFP wound up renaming one of its seminars planned for Cannes. “American Independents At Cannes” is now called “American Directors At Cannes” and will examine the new phenomenon of hybrid independents.
“They’re using the resources of the studios but still remain creatively independent,” explains Mandelberger, citing Lee, Joel and Ethan Cohen and Jarmusch. “They’re saying, ‘Hands off, we’re the authors of our projects.’ And the studios apparently are allowing it in a lot of cases,” provided there’s an adequate return at the boxoffice, Mandelberger notes,
For independents having non-commercial works and possessing neither press agent nor sales rep, Cannes can be a tough nut to crack. Last year Stephanie Black fell into this category when her political documentary about Jamaican sugar cane workers in Florida, “H-2 Worker,” was invited to the Critics Week section. The exposure resulted in only a few immediate sales – to the Japanese NHK network and a Birmingham, England, theater chain.
But Black’s efforts were not in vain. She established contact with London-based agent Jane Balfour, who later became her foreign sales rep. The good reviews at Cannes have helped make Balfour’s job easier, Black believes. Plus, “I never had to apply to a festival again,” she says, counting at least 25 invitations since her splash at Cannes.
Being included in the Critics Week section, Black was not exactly lost in the shuffle. For others, as Stillman observes, “Cannes is an expensive holiday if you’re not in a festival showcase.” Typical out-of-pocket costs start at $5,000 to $7,000 for visiting filmmakers, who have to cover subtitling, shipping, one-sheets and posters, press packets, plus airfare and accommodations.
On a $100,000 budget, that can be a hefty price to pay for contacts, which is all many market attendees end up with. “It was worth it for me, if only to understand the business game and how it works,” says Tirlok Malik, writer, actor and co-producer of the feature comedy “Lonely In America.” Since the film was in postproduction this time last year, Malik came to the market with only a press kit and a flyer. But by following up on the contacts made there, Malik eventually landed a deal with Arista.
From a buyer’s perspective, Cannes can be a preferred site for indie pick-ups. “Cannes winds up deals started at Sundance and elsewhere,” says Mary Macdonald, chief film buyer at U.K.’s Channel 4.
“Sundance is a good place to see the material,” says MacDonald, “but at that early stage it’s almost impossible to separate off U.K. television rights.” That’s a problem, she says, since filmmakers often come to Sundance seeking worldwide deals.
“By the time of Cannes, they usually have sales agents, and it’s easier to do a deal,” says Macdonald. Among other works, Channel 4 snagged “Small Time” by Norman Loftis at last year’s market.
Other independents were not so lucky. First-time director (and “Jungle Fever” music producer) Alex Steyermark and producer David Higgenbotham were frustrated in their efforts last year to sell “Requiem,” a feature based on the letters of German Romantic writer Heinrich Kleist. “The Germans liked it, but they didn’t want a New York film on a German subject. They said it’s not their idea of a New York avantgarde film,” says Higgenbotham.
Adds Steyermark, “For every Whit Stillman, there’s hundreds of others who don’t make it at Cannes.”