Festgoers have fun despite fiscal funk, flu

CANNES — Despite fretful rumors about attendance, market biz and la grippe porcine (swine flu), the 62nd Cannes Film Festival got off to a high-flying start with “Up,” the Disney-Pixar toon that brought fun — a word not often associated with film fests — to the Croisette.

The usual red-carpet pomp, including umpteen gendarmes and paparazzi, was augmented by an army of little ballerinas in white tutus lining the steps.

The evening opened with a half-hour presentation, followed by the ceremonial distribution of 3-D glasses.

The elegant black-tie crowd added a sense of goofy playfulness as they took photos of themselves and each other in their bulky red-and-black plastic Xpand 3-D glasses.

Some looked silly, and others somehow managed to make the goggles look like a daring fashion statement. And when fest honcho Thierry Fremaux announced that the “lunettes” had to be returned, the audience let out a collective groan.

“Up” proved a perfect scene-setter for a fest that, despite global worries, boasted an aura of shy hope. (That mood was boosted by the fact that there were high-profile acquisitions announced Wednesday even before the official start of the fest.) The enthused reaction to the pic, both from critics and the Palais audience, was sustained into the wee hours with the official fest buffet dinner after the screening, followed by the Disney-Pixar hot-ticket latenight party at Carlton Beach.

The opener also set the tone for a different style of star power. Since the most familiar name of the film’s voice talent are Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer (who aren’t here), the star treatment was reserved for Pixar-Disney chief creative officer John Lasseter and the pic’s director, Pete Docter.

The opening ceremony included a song from Bryan Ferry and comments by French thesp Edouard Baer, jury prexy Isabelle Huppert and Charles Aznavour, who lends his voice to the French version of “Up.”

Guests at the fest’s dinner at the Salon des Ambassadeurs and at the Disney-Pixar beach bash enthused about the film, which was a sharp change from the Cannes openers of recent years, including “My Blueberry Nights” and the 2008 launcher, “Blindness” (which might have been more fun with 3-D glasses).

In general, Hollywood will have a more muted presence than in years past, when the “Indiana Jones” sequel, “The Da Vinci Code” and “Ocean’s Thirteen” brought out the stars, causing the paparazzi to go nuts. After “Up,” the big American films are Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” with Brad Pitt, and Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock.”

As with the attention to Lasseter and Docter, the fest is putting its emphasis on auteur power: Pedro Almodovar, Marco Bellocchio, Jane Campion, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, Park Chan-wook, Alain Resnais, Elia Suleiman, Johnnie To and Lars von Trier. It’s a lineup that won’t exactly have the folks at Us Weekly swooning, but Cahiers du Cinema should be in hog (or porcine) heaven.

As the fest launched Wednesday, there were the usual litany of festgoer grumblings, including sleep deprivation, scratchy throats, tetchy cell-phone connections, the split focus between fest and home office wheeling-dealings and, crucially, worries about business at the market.

Attendance is clearly down — the fest says the drop is minimal, but most of the major hotels still have rooms available, seating is immediate in even the hot restaurants, and the gridlock on the Croisette is gone. The lobby of the Majestic hotel, which is usually filled with festgoers standing around schmoozing, now boasts a lot of plush couches — a tacit acknowledgement that schmoozing will continue, but there will be much less need for standing room.

Pessimists see this winnowing of the crowds as a glum omen, but optimists see it as a necessary rebalancing of the film biz. The fringe people who were attempting to enter the industry in the past few years have disappeared, but the important global companies, the key indies and studios’ specialty divisions are more in evidence than ever because they are still spending money.

Thanks to them, the first Cannes fest since the global credit crunch offers a surprising note of hopefulness. This year’s sellers are cautiously upbeat. While most have smaller contingents than usual, and their stays will be shorter than in the past, they’re bullish about the quality of the films they have to offer.

The consensus is that the coming weekend will be jam-packed as buyers and sellers fly in for three or four days. The screenings are plentiful, and Cannes’ oversaturation of parties and meet-and-greets has been reduced to a navigable fraction of past years.

But the source of concern is that many buyers have a full inventory (and limited budgets), so it remains to be seen how active the market will be.

It’s an annual Cannes tradition to predict that it will be a terrible market, followed by a later proclamation that the fest and mart turned out to be surprisingly productive. It’s no longer a reliable yardstick to measure success by the number of deals sealed during the event. Many firms laid the groundwork for their pacts in Berlin and will finalize them here; similarly, Cannes will lay the foundation for deals to be firmed many months from now.

As for swine flu, the media in France, like everywhere else, seems obsessed by it, but several days in Cannes offered a grand total of one sighting of a person wearing a protective mask.

(John Hopewell contributed to this report.)

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