Unfinished Cannes entries are risky

Soderbergh's 'Che' will likely be re-cut

A filmmaker doesn’t recover easily from a critical drubbing at the Cannes Film Festival. Neither does the sales team trying to land a North American buyer.

This year, three American directors rolled the dice by bringing spanking new films to the official competition that were also for sale at the fest. Both Steven Soderbergh and James Gray are two-time Cannes vets whose global profile has been boosted by the fest. But scribe Charlie Kaufman is a Cannes virgin, debuting his first feature, “Synecdoche, New York.”

Being in the competition is “good for the movie and gives us attention right away,” says Kaufman, “and makes everyone feel like we accomplished something.”

Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or for his 1989 debut “sex, lies and videotape,” followed by “King of the Hill” in 1993. But he almost wasn’t able to complete his Che opus — a pair of pics totalling four hours and 18 minutes — in time for this year’s fest.

His French and Spanish backers, Wild Bunch and Telecinco, put up $61 million and pre-sold territories all over the world. Wild Bunch was seeking about $8 million for North American rights, and wanted a shorter film from the filmmaker who, judging from the mixed press response — “a folly,” said one critic, “a mess,” said another, “… expressive, innovative, striking, exciting,” wrote James Rocchi in Cinematical — will likely wind up back in the editing room. Indeed, Variety‘s Todd McCarthy says, “It will be back to the drawing board for ‘Che.’ ”

Soderbergh initially didn’t think he could finish the film in time for Cannes. “The process of editing was intense,” he said at a press conference in Cannes. “The further you get into it, you need context. That’s why you need two movies.”

Don’t helmers ever learn?

Taking an unfinished film to Cannes is a risky roll of the dice. Remember Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales,” Wong Kar Wai’s “2046,” Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” and Edward Norton starrer “Down in the Valley?”

One thing is likely: “Che” will not be released in its current form. And it will not sell overnight — unless a distrib promises to help Soderbergh to find his movie. Even if the pic lands one of the top Cannes prizes — star Benicio Del Toro is earning widespread praise — the attention still isn’t likely to turn it into a commercial theatrical entry for a Stateside distributor facing an unforgiving, cluttered marketplace.

Toppers for Fox Searchlight, Miramax and Focus Features all skipped town before the film unspooled.

Harvey Weinstein, insisting he neither bid on nor viewed the film before the fest, says he supports Soderbergh’s effort, but would he buy it in its current form? Even Weinstein has to worry about his bottom-line prospects in the States.

For his part, James Gray had a much happier Cannes this time around, after getting booed at last year’s “We Own the Night” screening. That film was sold before its Cannes unveiling to Sony for $11.5 million and squeaked into the black after its DVD release.

“Each year there is a governing gestalt to the fest where there’s a thing in the air they want,” Gray said over lunch last week at the Carlton Beach. “It’s a bit of a crapshoot.”

At the behest of producer Donna Gigliotti, Gray didn’t waste any time getting another film under way after “Night.” His latest, “Two Lovers,” backed by Wild Bunch and 2929 Entertainment, features a vulnerable, touching performance by Joaquin Phoenix as an unhappy young man in love with a good girl beloved by his family (Vinessa Shaw) and a bad girl (Gwyneth Paltrow) who dangles escape from his limited prospects.

With the pic finished shooting in January, Gray rushed post-production to deliver it in time for Cannes. The intimate drama played well not only for the black-tie crowd at the Lumiere but for critics and gloomy U.S. buyers who hadn’t been rocked by any of the pics they were screening. Four buyers made bids, and a deal was expected to close before fest’s end, as long as 2929 and CAA can land terms that will give 2929 a bigger upside through participating in output deals than going through its own Magnolia Pictures.

“Cannes was a last-minute decision,” says 2929’s Marc Butan. “We thought we had a stronger film that would play well for European audiences and critics. It was an opportunity to show the film under the best possible circumstances.”

Gray’s desire is simple: “I want it to be picked up by a distributor who understands and loves it. I don’t want it to be sold too big. I want people to discover it. Movies have their own lives after you make them.”

Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and UTA’s decision to screen “Synecdoche, New York” the week before its official fest unveiling was a gamble. The movie was one of the few hot tickets for sale in the U.S. at Cannes, and was given what is considered a “lucky” Friday slot at the fest, which has delivered for Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” in the past.

But the May 23 slot was too late, apparently, for the top execs at the U.S distribution companies with which SKE was hoping to close a sale during the fest. So SKE and UTA invited all the top buyers to an early market screening May 17, well before all the critics and press would pass judgment.

The pic, according to some who have either read the script or seen it, is ambitious, arty and brilliant, if not entirely accessible. In other words, it was a good fit for Cannes.

But by screening the movie ahead of its official premiere berth, the sellers betrayed their anxiety about making a quick sale. If they had the goods, the sellers would have hung tough and forced buyers to wait. Instead, SKE and UTA were afraid to lose potential buyers at Cannes, and they didn’t want to screen the movie simultaneously back in the states.

Why the hurry? SKE wants to get its money back quickly — and a bidding war was apparently seen as the best way to achieve that.

Once upon a time, the goal used to be to find the ideal distrib, one that was passionate about putting its expertise on the line to give a film the best possible chance of reaching audiences.

That’s not what these expensive movies looking to recoup at fests are necessarily seeking these days.

But they should be.

Read more of Anne Thompson’s blog here

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