Varied fest fixtures lord over the Croisette

Everything at Cannes is larger than life, including the participants.

From May 15-26, key players in the pic biz — filmmakers, distributors, critics, executives, actors, agents — will converge, mingle and occasionally clash at the Riviera resort town, making decisions that will affect the international film biz for years to come.

For the 55th year, deals will be brokered, films will be acquired or greenlit, and careers will be launched, as thousands of film workers conduct business — despite the crowds of tourists, showbiz wannabes, and poodle-walking local residents who are soaking up the glamour, frenzy and hoopla.

Cannes is a microcosm of showbiz, and there are too many power players to pick one King of Cannes (aside from the obvious choice, Gilles Jacob).

The problem is not finding Cannes heavy-hitters — the problem is limiting the list. With so many branches of the film biz represented, it’s difficult to single out only one or two people.

But here are 15 movers and shakers who have made a big difference over the years. Some are immediately recognizable to the tourists; some are unfamiliar to them.

But to those showbiz reps in attendance, these people are royalty in their respective fields. They wield influence and earn respect (sometimes they even inspire fear and loathing), because they are widely acknowledged as a force to the festival itself, as well as to the international film biz.

Patrick Wachsberger
One of the pioneers of the international sales biz — and a former French ski champion — the debonair Wachsberger boasts impeccable taste in projects and dealmaking prowess. Since co-founding Summit in 1992, he most recently sealed deals with Crusader Entertainment to handle foreign sales on its upcoming slate. At Cannes he is repping Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale.”

Gordon Steel
The mild-mannered Scottish native who was originally an actor got involved in the biz during the 80’s, serving a brief stint as an agent at WMA before launching his own shingle the Steel Company. He scours film output each year looking for pickups for his heavyweight international clients, including Canal Plus, Samsung and Fujisankei.

Dennis Davidson
The PR guru and gatekeeper for screenings at the Olympia Theater, perenially-tanned Brit Davidson and his phalanx of DDA foot soldiers do everything for their clients from booking hotel rooms to organizing lavish film launch events. He is so wed to Cannes that he even got married during the festival — and still celebrates his anniversary with wife, producer Janette Day, at the Hotel du Cap.

Cassian Elwes
A former producer turned agent and the sibling of actor Cary, the irrepressible Elwes runs with a fast crowd on the global fest circuit. Brit-born Elwes has put together varied indie fare and recently helped “Monster’s Ball” get out of the gate at Lions Gate.

Ken Kamins
The head of ICM’s international operations, Kamins was one of the key architects of the mega franchise “Lord of the Rings” repping both director Peter Jackson and producer Fran Walsh. He also found funding for Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park.” Kamins has a knack for keeping a cool head in the midst of the toughest negotiations.

Francis Ford Coppola
Having been “discovered” at Cannes, having won the Palme d’Or and having served as president of the jury, Coppola is truly a king of Cannes. His first studio feature, “You’re a Big Boy Now,” was in competish in 1967; he won the Palme twice, for “The Conversation” in 1975 and for “Apocalypse Now” four years later, and he presided over the jury in 1996. What’s more, his two children, Sofia and Roman, have had films of their own at the festival, “The Virgin Suicides” and “CQ,” respectively.

Harvey and Bob Weinstein
Since first appearing on the Croisette in the mid-1980s, the brothers have come to symbolize the fest’s blending of the artistic with the bombastic. The Miramax co-toppers relish playing both sides of the street, scouting arty foreign-lingo fare and touting the latest would-be blockbuster. This year’s 20-minute amuse-guele which will make history by being the first preview reel to screen officially of “Gangs of New York” is vintage Weinstein. Like many of their Cannes-related endeavors, it isn’t preordained to be a hit but it will certainly cause a stir.

Roger Ebert
For the first time in 25 years, Ebert will not be in Cannes because of a shoulder injury. One of the American journalist/critics, along with Variety‘s Todd McCarthy and Time‘s Richard Corliss, with the longest tenures of Cannes attendance, Ebert covers the fest for his home base Chicago Sun-Times as well as for television. He moderates high-profile panels, asks famously astute questions at press conferences, and is undoubtedly the best raconteur of festival lore. He has even written a charming little book about the fest — and always manages to have an aisle seat at the Palais screenings.

Pierre Rissient
A ubiquitous presence at film fests the world over, Rissient has been a regular at Cannes since 1964, first as a publicist partnered with Bertrand Tavernier, then as a solo operator. Rissient played a crucial role in bringing Asian cinema to the West and was point man on three films that won Palmes d’Or in four years: Campion’s “The Piano,” Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Taste of Cherry.” A production executive known as the ultimate Cannes insider, Rissient probably knows more about what’s really going on in Cannes — and what’s gone on for the past four decades — than anyone outside the fest hierarchy.

John Ptak
Often referred to as the godfather of the international agenting biz, the erudite Ptak, who at one time managed The Doors, heads CAA’s international department, holding court at the Majestic during Cannes. He was instrumental in the formation of sales and production outfit Intermedia and has a long-standing biz relationship with such A-list filmmakers as Ridley and Tony Scott.

Mark Damon
The veteran sales agent who started off as an actor in spaghetti westerns has seen the ups and downs of the international sales business from the helm of such companies as Producers Sales Organization, Vision, a production, international sales and worldwide distribution company with Peter Guber and Jon Peters, Behaviour Worldwide, and currently MDP Worldwide. Known for his irrepressible charm and multi-lingual talents, Damon recently convinced Michael Jackson’s Neverland Entertainment to invest $15 million in his company.

Catherine Verret-Vimont
Exec director of the French Film Office/Unifrance USA, Verret-Vimont is the steely queen to whom all the American distribs and producers, from Harvey Weinstein and Bob Shaye on down, must do obeisance in order to get their hands on those precious Unifrance badges, tickets and party invitations for French movies.

Gerard Depardieu
He comes to Cannes, whether or not he has a film, to hang out with his buddies at the Majestic. He is treated like royalty, moving about by the secret underground tunnels which apparently link the hotels.

Jeremy Thomas
The vet British producer regularly gets films into the Cannes selection, though he rarely wins much. The Jury Prize for “Crash” was an exception. He always occupies the same suite directly above the front porch of the Carlton, where he pieces together the finance for artistically ambitious movies with major directors.

Jacques-Eric Strauss
The eminence grise of French sales agents, Strauss was the founder of President Films, which he eventually sold to France TV Distribution. A close friend of Claude Berri, he repped the “Asterix” movies worldwide, and remains one of the best-connected figures behind the Gallic curtain.

Jean Labadie
Gallic distribber has an uncanny knack of sniffing out Cannes winners. If you want to bet on who’s going to win the Palme d’Or, it’s a good idea to discover which films Labadie’s Bac F
ilms is releasing in France, and pick one from that list. As Woody Allen’s regular French distrib, he’ll be stumping up for this year’s opening-night party.

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