Cannes game: Who’ll win the bid?

Hard to tell which distrib will nab 'Night,' 'Diving Bell'

At Cannes, finding a high-profile pic with U.S. box office potential and no distribution deal already in place is rare.

So when James Gray‘s New York-set crime thriller “We Own the Night” — starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg — popped onto the radar at this year’s fest, the question of which Stateside distrib would end up owning it quickly became the most engrossing guessing game on the Croisette.

Gray had made just two pics — “Little Odessa” and “The Yards” — but he had that je ne sais quoi allure on the Croisette. “There’s one every year,” shrugged one longtime festgoer.

Following a buyers-only screening on the morning of May 17, rumors immediately began swirling about various warring offers: Miramax apparently bid $5 million. Fox Searchlight — or was it Picturehouse? — raised the ante to $8 million. Then Lionsgate swept in at $10 million, only to be bested by Summit at $11 million.

Folks on the cocktail circuit eyed a smiling Rob Friedman, Summit’s co-chairman, and figured a deal was done.

But then Sony’s Peter Schlessel laid down $11.75 million the next day, and purportedly pledged better backend terms and robust marketing muscle worth as much as $20 million more. The deal was sealed.

Curiously, one company that may that may benefit wasn’t even in on the Cannes bidding: Universal bought domestic rights at the script stage but relinquished them back to the producers, Mark Cuban‘s 2929. The studio, however, did retain a few key international rights, including the U.K., Germany and Spain. If the pic hits paydirt, U will benefit from Sony’s overseas marketing; if it tanks, it won’t have lost much, having picked up those rights for a pittance.

“We Own the Night” wasn’t the only bidding game in town.

Another ensued in the fest’s second week — this one for Stateside rights to a much smaller, much artier but much lauded pic called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Julian Schnabel-directed pic tells the real-life story of French editor Jean Dominique Bauby, who after suffering a massive stroke, managed to communicate and even write an uplifting memoir by doing the only thing he could: blinking his eyelid.

Fierce debate divided the Croisette, some arguing the French-language film is “too important” not to pick up and that DVD potentially could bail it out; others countered that there’d be no afterlife whatsoever after limited theatrical, and that the helmer’s other two movies (“Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls”) tanked.

But Miramax chimed in May 24, ringing in a deal for “Bell” said to be worth about $2.5 million. ThinkFilm, 2929 and Goldwyn were reportedly in the mix of bidders.

The Weinstein Company hoped to land the film at script stage but Pathe’s $5 million asking price was too steep. The filmmakers decided to let pic find its price in the market.

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