CANNES — One of the questions most frequently asked on the Croisette this year is whether Ciby 2000 will be back in Cannes in 1998 and, if so, in what form.

The Paris-based production company has three Cannes Palme d’Or-winners to its credit: Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” and last year’s “Secrets & Lies” from Mike Leigh; this year, it has Wim Wenders’ “The End of Violence” in the competition.

Hottest speculation is over the future of chief executive Jean-Francois Fonlupt, who appears to be expending most of his energy trying to prevent Ciby’s going to France’s private TV network TF1.

French construction group Bouygues owns Ciby and controls TF1, but relations between Fonlupt and senior network execs are frosty.

TF1 chairman Patrick Le Lay has made an offer for Ciby to Bouygues chairman Martin Bouygues, but the offer is believed to be lower than the exec will accept at the moment.

However, savvy Paris industry execs say that sooner or later Ciby will go to TF1. But even if an outside buyer is found, Fonlupt is unlikely to remain where he is.

Another senior Ciby exec whose position is in doubt is Wendy Palmer, well-respected head of the London-based Ciby Sales. Palmer refuses to talk about her plans, but few people will be surprised if she walks sometime after Cannes.

It’s 12 months now since Fonlupt confirmed that he was about to start looking for outside investors to take all or part of the Bouygues stake in the film entity.

Deathbed decision

Ciby was created by Bouygues founder Francis Bouygues in one of the last major decisions he made before dying in the early 1990s.

Over the past year, Fonlupt himself spearheaded the sales attempt, saying that Bouygues’ heavy commitment to breaking into the telephony business in France had reduced its commitment to the film business. After several visits to the U.S., he turned up empty-handed.

Now the sale is being handled by French bank Societe Generale and investment bank Bannon and Co. repping Societe Generale in Los Angeles.

Ciby observers partly accept the Bouygues-telephony theory, but they point out that the company’s culturally ambitious strategy — supporting name directors such as Robert Altman, Pedro Almodovar, Kusturica and David Lynch — garners critical kudos while not always translating into box office returns.

Ciby’s 2-year-old French distribution subsid has struggled to make a mark on its home turf, and Fonlupt’s once-bruited plans to get into television production never came to anything.

All or nothing

Fonlupt appears to have been hawking Ciby as one entity, involving its production and distribution activities, its sales arm and its library of around 100 pics.

It is widely agreed that the most attractive part of the package is the library, which contains the likes of “The Piano,” “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Secrets & Lies.” Most of the rights are out of Ciby’s hands in the short term, but as they return, the library looks a solid midterm investment.

With Fonlupt unavailable for comment, it is not clear whether he would entertain a piecemeal sale.

Given the question mark hanging over Ciby, several filmmakers are wondering whether to keep projects with Fonlupt or take them elsewhere. Variety understands that the Ciby topper is continuing to make financial commitments to production, despite the current uncertainty.

On the other hand, sources said that the company is not acquiring pics for distribution, at least not for the moment.

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