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Accessible auteurs tempt int’l distribs

Pre-sales bounce back for top titles

It was a tale of two Cannes.

While American buyers grumbled loudly about the lack of movies to suit their taste, foreign distribs quietly got out their checkbooks and swept the shelves bare.

In the foreign pre-sales sector for largely American movies, however, it was a very different story. Summit, Capitol, Focus, Odyssey and Fortissimo reported record sales for their strong slates.

It was a far cry from just three years ago, when the pre-sales biz hit rock bottom in the wake of the dot-com and Neuer Markt crashes and the mood along the Croisette was somber.

This year’s hot titles included Summit’s George Clooney legal thriller “Michael Clayton,” Capitol’s Brit spy kid franchise “Stormbreaker,” Morgan Creek’s ‘The Good Shepherd” and the inevitable “Risk Addiction: Basic Instinct 2” from Mario Kassar.

But unlike, say, two years ago when the rival “Alexander” projects were duking it out along the Croisette, this wasn’t a Cannes dominated by one or two giant projects.

The brutal conditions of recent years have imposed some discipline on sellers and their producers, who have been forced to raise their commercial game.

“In Hong Kong, instead of making 300 films a year they are making 70,” Fortissimo topper Wouter Barendrecht notes. “It’s about making fewer but better films.”

Companies such as Summit have become proactive about developing their own material closely tailored to the needs of their clients. Take the dance pic “Music High,” one of Summit’s hottest pre-sellers, even without a cast.

“We wanted to do a certain kind of project we felt was not available in the marketplace, a ‘Fame’ or a ‘Flashdance’ that was edgy but not too ethnic and could work in domestic and foreign,” says Summit’s Patrick Wachsberger.

Filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Wim Wenders and Woody Allen, who could have been considered self-indulgent in the past, delivered their most mainstream work in many years.

Robert Lantos, producer of Egoyan’s $23 million thriller “Where the Truth Lies,” comments: “It’s pretty much sold out, and in every country the distributor is new. The film is designed for a much broader audience than any he has made before.”

More product from Hollywood majors is also available, as studios focusing more narrowly on tentpoles and CGI become ever more nervous about distributing straight drama overseas, looking to indie partners to share that perceived risk.

“After the studios have focused all their energy on their tentpole movies, they are realizing they need additional product, and that can be done in partnership with us,” Wachsberger says.

At the same time, stars are more willing to be packaged into indie projects, since they aren’t always getting meaty roles at the teen-obsessed studios.

Focus sales topper Glen Basner comments, ‘There’s a breadth of product that hasn’t been around for quite some time, not one humungous film consuming all the time and energy.”

The pace of business vindicated the decision to move the American Film Market to November, leaving only the artsy Berlinale in the old February slot.

“There’s nothing like starving them for six months,” commented Pathe Intl. topper Alison Thompson dryly. “Clearly people have come to the market with shopping baskets they need to fill.”

The weak dollar is making asking prices more affordable, especially for Euro distribs, even though buyers report indignantly that certain sellers have hiked their rates to take advantage of that fact.

Focus was initially asking an eye-popping $3.5 million for Roberto Benigni’s “The Tiger and the Snow” from the U.K., a territory where foreign-lingo pics rarely break seven figures at the box office.

“We don’t price according to budget, but according to the revenues we think a film can earn,” Basner counters. “I don’t think our prices are higher than ever; I think our product is better than ever and distributors are more profitable than ever.”

Fortissimo is seeing rewards from broadening its slate, adding English-lingo pics such as the Alan Rickman/Sigourney Weaver drama “Snow Cake” and the Robin Williams vehicle “The Night Listener” alongside its Asian and arthouse fare.

“At this market we began to work with buyers we never worked with before,” says Fortissimo’s Michael Werner, who reports first-ever deals with Svensk in Scandinavia, Icon in the U.K., Filmax in Spain, Roadshow in Greece and Videa and Theodora in Italy.

At the most commercial end of the indie marketplace, Summit and Capitol had pretty much sold out by the fest’s halfway mark. But the true temperature of the market is taken not among the prestige sellers at the top end, but among the midlevel players.

“It’s been great, we feel a bit phoenix-like,” testifies Michael Ryan of IAC Films, a company that was clinging on by its fingertips a couple of years ago. IAC launched the latest “Highlander” installment at Cannes. “Our first three days were all million-dollar days, and we had another one later in the market,” Ryan says.

The horror glut is making life more challenging for companies in that niche, who report that selling has become more laborious because buyers have so many more competing projects to wade through.

“It’s a wonder Cannes doesn’t sink into the sea under the weight of horror movies,” jokes Pathe’s Thompson, who nonetheless reports healthy sales on Neil Marshall’s chiller “The Descent.”

The one territory that didn’t share the general buoyancy was Japan, described variously as “selective” (by Summit), “cautious” (by Capitol), “specific” (by Focus) and “not hyperactive” (by Fortissimo).

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