Gallic protests, H'wood stunts energize hopping fest

CANNES — It has everything you’d want from a Hollywood epic: big stars, a hefty budget, beautiful scenery, teeming crowd scenes and constant dramatic tension. But this is no film, it’s the 57th Cannes Film Festival, which got off to a running start May 12.

Though the fest usually is sleepy in its first few days, this year’s event has shown a vitality that was notably absent during the entire 10-day stint last year. Even before the fest started, deals were revving up, political protests were brewing, and by the second day, Hollywood gave Cannes a vital injection of old-fashioned hoopla and glamour.

Not surprisingly, Brad Pitt provided the star wattage to the May 13 press conference for “Troy,” in advance of the evening out of competition screening. The SRO press confab in the Palais left more than 150 journos forced to watch on monitors in the hallway. As the stars filed into the press room, one turned-away Brit journo exclaimed with serious excitement to a colleague, “Look! You can see the back of his head!”

And the crowd at the evening screening TKTK

Within the first 24 hours of the fest, execs and filmmakers unveiled a slew of pacts as Cannes became one giant junket for the world media.

Neil Jordan arrived in town to announce his black comedy “Breakfast on Pluto” for Pathe Pictures; Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, here with opener “Bad Education” (which Sony Pictures Classics will release in the U.S.), unveiled their five-year renewal of vows with SPC.

DreamWorks, doing heavy promos here for “Shark Tale” and the in-competition “Shrek 2,” touted two projects for its specialty label Go Fish, while David Gordon Green touted deals to write and direct “The Secret Life of Bees” for Focus and “Goat” for Killer Films. And Wild Bunch tubthumped its $40 million expansion into Euro distribution.

Meanwhile, the market, which runs alongside the fest, saw attendance up 11% on its May 13 opening day: 7,225 participants registered from 63 countries. There are 1,275 films booked for screenings, more than 40% in English. Japan has the biggest rise in attendance, with 359 registered participants.

The dramatic tension comes from political turmoil, both local and international.

Long before its May 17 competition screening here, Michael Moore’s docu “Fahrenheit 9/11″ was stirring up heated debates, fueled by its battles over its U.S. distribution.

Two other docus are also promising to stir up talk and to provide a forum for political protests and activism: “Uncovered: The War in Iraq” (former ambassador Joe Wilson is here with the pic) and “Bush’s Brain.” Plus, there’s the Sean Penn starrer, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” which tackles American politics in the Watergate era.

Meanwhile, Cannes has hosted a slew of Gallic street protests. On opening night, hundreds of French showbiz workers chanted and carried banners a block from the Palais, angry about cuts to their unemployment benefits. Workers from other French sectors have joined them in a show of support.

And Pedro Almodovar injected a somber note at the otherwise festive opening-night ceremonies.

Before the screening of his “Bad Education” began, the helmer bounded onto the stage and dedicated the evening to victims of Madrid’s terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, employees of the Carlton hotel staged their own protest, demanding better wages and benefits. Since this is Cannes, the ultra-serious demands were staged in the shadow of giant posters for “The Stepford Wives,” Jean-Claude van Damme’s “Kumite” and the ever-present “Troy.”

Although tensions have been high in recent days, there was never any fear that Gallic protests could actually halt the fest, as happened in 1968.

(Jonathan Bing, Adam Dawtrey and Alison James contributed to this report.)

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