Americans fill up on niche films

Some caution market has been too frantic

In theory, American buyers should be bullish as the 60th annual Cannes Film Festival kicks off today, with a slew of good films, new money from hedge funds and signs that American audiences are increasingly open to specialty fare.

But with some newly pumped up players — think Dreamachine, Summit, Overture — taking on bigger, more varied roles in the biz, some pundits are cautioning that market enthusiasm has been a little too frantic.

“The marketplace right now is such a hotbed — people have been overpaying like crazy,” said Sony Classics’ Tom Bernard, referring to heady sums forked out for a handful of pics at recent events like Sundance.

Picturehouse’s Bob Berney noted that competition for “quality” pics is ever tougher and that it’s increasingly incumbent upon smart players to get in on the ground floor with projects, doing pre-buys whenever possible.

In Bernard’s view, one of the key developments that will impact the indie market is the hook-up of the London-Paris-Toronto-centered Dreamachine headed by Hengameh Panahi, Jeremy Thomas and Tim Haslam, a combination that he said could shift the dynamics of the biz.

It’s one of the first companies that can handle U.S. movies and international pics. “Its contacts are global and it can sell every country in the world. I also think they know pretty well how to match a movie with the right company,” Bernard said.

Similarly, former Paramount chief operating officer Rob Friedman and Summit’s Patrick Wachsberger have joined forces to relaunch Summit and move into U.S. distribution. They’ve purportedly got $1 billion to fund their efforts.

A Yank company that will be making its active buying debut on the Croisette is Overture, the film arm of the John Malone-backed IDT group, which is headed by CEO Chris McGurk and chief operating officer Danny Rosett.

“We’re in start-up mode and we need things from Cannes. What I’m hoping is to discover that diamond in the rough that other people aren’t paying attention to,” Rosett said. He insisted that the company is not buying with one eye to IDT’s U.S. pay TV outlets, but rather is interested in “a wide array of films, perhaps a bit more mainstream than some of our competitors.”

On the upside, Berney told Variety that U.S. audiences are responding to more different kinds of product.

Berney cited the warm reception given “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which his company distributed Stateside, and which, in his view, broke barriers. “It was period, it was violent and it was in Spanish. Yet it attracted a younger audience, and even got wide play in the American suburbs.”

Warner Independent Pictures’ Polly Cohen believes younger demos in the U.S. are “vastly underserved,” and they are responding to a greater variety of genres, styles and cinema traditions than was true 15 years ago.

“It doesn’t matter about the platform they watch it on, and it doesn’t matter about where it comes from if it’s good,” is her contention. After almost a year in the job, Cohen is making her Cannes debut at the helm of WIP, the Time Warner unit that piqued moviegoer interest with “March of the Penguins” two years ago.

Over at Lionsgate, acquisitions topper Peter Block contended that genre pics are hot right now in the global marketplace. He and his acquisitions lieutenant Eda Kowan said the whole point about what to buy boils down to one factor: Emotion.

“You have to want to work with a movie for 18 months or so, just the way the filmmakers who put it together did. Otherwise, what’s the point of buying it?”

Bernard told Variety that part of the problem with art movies, especially foreign-language ones, is that they need special handling in the U.S.

“A number of specialized companies don’t know how to handle such pics,” he said, without naming names.

“There’s no doubt people are interested in seeing movies of all kinds again. Perhaps, though it’s hard to prove, the movies are more interesting right now,” mused producer Chuck Roven, who will be on the Croisette to support an indie pic he co-produced called “The Bank Job.”

Gordon Steel, whose eponymous L.A.-based company assesses movie projects and advises a passel of international buyers about what to acquire and how much to pay, also sees bluer skies than he has in a while.

“I think people in Cannes will have an active market. There’s certainly more product out there — and, more importantly, more quality movies than I’ve seen in a while. I’m aware of bigger titles, a lot more commercial ones at that,” Steel said.

Like most of his Yank colleagues, Steel is reluctant to rattle off the projects or finished features that he is preliminarily favoring, but informally several execs listed a handful that are obvious targets of U.S. interest, either because they’re screening in a festival section or because the talent involved is unusually high-profile. (As in other recent editions of Cannes, most competition titles have already been snapped up for distribution in the U.S.)

Among the most bruited about pics that will get a determined look-see by the key U.S. acquisitions execs are James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” Gus van Sant’s “Paranoid Park,” Fatih Akin’s “Edge of Heaven,” Christine Vachon’s “Savage Grace” and Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

There’s also a heady supply of other titles that will likely land deals in key European territories, including Roman Polanski’s lava-laden take on “Pompeii” and the sophomore pic from Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev, The Banishment.”

It’s tougher sledding for American films being sold overseas, though “Little Miss Sunshine’s” $40 million-plus overseas gross provides some inspiration as the market begins. Its surprising tally “has almost single-handedly revived hope for American, character-driven films” in overseas territories recently dominated by local fare,” said Ariel Veneziano, head of international sales for GreeneStreet Films.

“Still, with local product taking more of the marketplace, we have to be much more attentive to the qualities of a film that will stand out. Midrange films really have to be calibrated. The days are gone where you could have a decent script and a decent cast and be able to count on coverage going in.”

One company that is keeping a low profile this go-round is HBO Films, whose top exec Colin Callender is not making the trek over. (And that was before the company’s CEO Chris Albrecht was fired 10 days ago after a very public arrest for battery.) Company will be shooting an episode of its hit TV series “Entourage,” on the Croisette, however.

Most all the American acquisitions execs stressed that they didn’t absolutely have to come away with anything under their arms, since most of them are also in the business of producing their own films as the balance of their annual release slates.

“Still,” as Block suggested, “you spend the first half of Cannes wishing everything was good, and then the second half of the market wishing everything was bad — or at least that it wasn’t for you.” You may as well, given all the effort, go for something.

(Dade Hayes contributed to this report.)

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