Distributors try to pack punch for global arena

U.S. indies with American stars were once welcomed with open arms by overseas distribs. Now, with increasing competition from international success like “Perfume,” “Mr. Bean’s Vacation” and “The Lives of Others,” Americans are discovering that they have to come up with an “event” pic if they’re going to make an impact.

Most U.S. indies these days are getting a short shrift in the overseas market, with a few attaining “event” status — but the question is what’s an event, which can range from “Saw” and “Hostel” to “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Despite the challenges, American sellers of indie fare are out in force here, and are bullish about their prospects. Those that have studio backing, a la New Line, Focus or par Vantage are, well advantaged in this tricky game.

“I expect Cannes to be very active overall, certainly for us, since we did not have any new product at Berlin,” said New Line international exec Camela Galano.

Ditto the Weinstein Co.’s Harvey Weinstein, who pointed out that the three Competition pics his team is selling abroad — Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” Wong Kar Wai’s “My Blueberry Nights” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” — represent “the breadth and quality” of the traditional Weinstein-Miramax oeuvre.

“We spent the last two years building up our library and our video business. Not all our titles have worked theatrically, but this is the first moment, this Cannes, in which our movies reflect our tastes.”

One-year-old Par Vantage also feels it brings something different to this competitive fray.

“It’s an auspicious beginning for us,” said co-prexy Nick Meyer. “We’re making distinctive yet commercial films, and we have the studio behind us. We’re not totally dependent on foreign sales and we have multiple sources of finance.”

Par Vantage is selling “The Marc Pease Experience” in Cannes, but no deals have yet been concluded.

On the true “indie” front, Nu Image-First Look topper Avi Lerner, who’s been in the game for 35 years, adds, “Independent movies have to have something really special to sell well.”

He and others point out that Japan in particular — once the top-paying market for U.S. movies — is especially tricky.

Lerner is here to push “Brilliant,” which has Scarlett Johansson committed and a director likely to be named during the festival. Responding to the foreign market’s taste for bolder, bigger projects, Nu Image has stepped up its game. It’s also handling the Diane Keaton comedy “Mad Money.” Italy, Spain and Japan are among key territories still to close.

Seconding some of Lerner’s views, Odd Lot Entertainment’s Brian O’Shea told Variety he’s banking on buyer enthusiasm for “high-concept fare” and thinks he’s got just the ticket, “The Spirit,” based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller.

“We’ll have conceptual drawings and a synopsis. We’ll also allow buyers to read the script. Frank’s name is well-known and should draw interest,” O’Shea said. (Lionsgate has just secured domestic rights to the project.)

Odd Lot is also involved in what O’Shea describes as “a fantasy, family actioner” which for the first time features Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Called “The Forbidden Kingdom,” it’s been sold to China, where it was lensed, and to most other territories. However, Japan, South Korea and Italy have still not bitten.

Relativity Media’s Ryan Kavanaugh also said the recipe for international success has gotten more demanding for the cooks, as it were.

“The foreign market is now demanding large studio-quality product. They want to see bigger budgets on the screen and A-list talent to look at.”

Relativity is trying to respond to this demand, backing, among others, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma.”

“The earlier version was not widely seen abroad,” Kavanaugh said, “and director James Mangold did a bang-up job.” France is among the few major territories yet to hop aboard.

Initial’s Eric Christiansen also believes the most lucrative indie business market is the one that encompasses “bigger event movies.” (Initial, headed by Graham King, is the company behind “The Departed” and “The Aviator.” )

“The overall box office worldwide may be going up, but the number of pictures generating that dough has shrunk,” he pointed out. Indies, in short, he said, “need their tentpoles, too.”

Projects on his roster include “The Young Victoria,” which is at script stage, and eco-accented “Gardener of Eden,” for which a domestic U.S. deal is being shopped.

“Scar 3-D,” which is being billed as the first live-action digital horror movie, will be screened for buyers this weekend (with the appropriate glasses provided).

Cinema Vault’s Nick Stiliadis believes the digitalization of foreign moviehouses is set to take off in the next couple of years.

“We’re already fielding offers from Hollywood companies for domestic U.S. rights,” he said. “The rest of the world awaits.”

The companies are particularly energetic because U.S. pics increasingly are coming up against well-crafted, strongly plotted rival pics from Europe, Asia and Latin America. “Little Miss Sunshine” may have grossed $40 million abroad but foreign-originated pics, like the German-made “The Lives of Others,” have also chalked up sizeable sums. “Others” stands at $60 million so far.

And the key is to find a film with a subject matter that’s specific, but has universal appeal. About “Sicko,” Weinstein said he expected foreign buyers to be clamoring for the rights: “Everyone gets sick and big pharma is everywhere. I think its appeal will be broad. And it’s incredibly funny.”

As for Galano’s company, the Time Warner unit is not only selling the Eric Bana-Rachel MacAdams starrer (“Time-Traveler’s Wife”), which is at script stage, but also the political thriller “Rendition,” which has a few major territories still not cleared.

And in a promotional move partially reminiscent of its foreign sales savvy for “Lord of the Rings” in 2001, New Line will tease buyers with 10 minutes of “The Golden Compass,” the first installment in its planned trilogy based on the British literary franchise “His Dark Materials.” Talent including Daniel Craig, Eva Green and Dakota Blue Richards are expected here to gladhand with buyers who have already signed on the dotted line. Most territories are already spoken for.

There will also be a whiff of “Hairspray” in the air, with snippets to be screened to prospective buyers this weekend.

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