Fest compacts biz into a busy meet and greet marathon

Hollywood’s key power-lunch spots can be named on the fingers of one hand: The Ivy on Robertson Ave., the Grill in Beverly Hills and the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.

Through thick or thin — raging surf or volcanic ash — a trip to the Croisette remains a must, even while companies have cut back on the number of people they send by as much as half. Cannes may not be the extravaganza it was in past decades — particularly when newfound videobiz money brought dancing bears and pirate ships — but it’s as intense and frenetic as ever. For execs like Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, as well as agents, the combined festival and market is a promotional platform as well as a place to scout fresh talent.

And despite more deals being done via Skype and email, Cannes remains a key meeting ground. Studio heads, indie execs, financiers, international distributors, producers and agents from every region of the globe aren’t just there to climb the stairs of the Palais — they’re setting up deals to bear fruit much later.

“Cannes is unavoidable,” says Fox Intl. Prods. prexy Sanford Panitch. “It saves me a lot of travel. In three days, I can get a lot of key meetings in.”

Rena Ronson, co-head of UTA’s Independent Film Group, says it’s the only place where international distributors, financiers and the creative community all converge.

Stacey Snider hit Cannes two years ago to support the premieres of Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” as well as DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda.” But she also was there to quietly meet with top execs at Reliance, the Indian company that would later take a major stake in DreamWorks.

“Cannes is massive in terms of the amount of work that can get accomplished,” says veteran international sales honcho Nick Meyer, who was then co-president of Paramount Vantage. Meyer has given up counting how many times he’s been to Cannes; before Vantage, he was president of Lions-gate Intl. Now, he runs his own sales company, Sierra Pictures, which will be repping a slew of projects at Cannes.

Graham Taylor, topper of WME’s indie division, says Cannes plays a crucial role in terms of securing financing for new projects, since Hollywood is relying more and more on foreign coin.

“Typically, 10 days in Cannes denotes raising a few hundred million dollars. You can accomplish in a week what typically takes six or nine months in terms of deal construction,” Taylor says.

Indie pic “Blue Valentine” was hatched in Cannes last year.

Two years ago, Screen Capital Intl. and then-William Morris Agency announced the launch of a new film fund, Incentive Filmed Entertainment, during the fest. Last year, the fund announced in Cannes that it was financing “Blue Valentine,” starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and that Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park Intl. was selling foreign rights.

Now, after preeming at Sundance, the pic returns as part of the Cannes lineup — in Un Certain Regard — while foreign rights continue to be shopped by Hyde Park. The Weinstein Co., which is distributing the pic domestically, will use Cannes as a global launchpad for the film, which TWC is positioning as an awards contender. “Blue Valentine” doesn’t open in the U.S. until Dec. 31, but execs plan for Cannes to play a critical role in terms of publicity and generating early reviews.

But therein lies the risk of Cannes: Negative notices there can cause permanent perception problems for some titles.

Such was the case with Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” Some festgoers and crix were underwhelmed by the Sony pic at its 2006 official competition screening, and it went on to gross a disappointing $16 million in the U.S. and $45 million internationally.

But studio tentpoles don’t go to Cannes for good reviews, they go for the exposure — and for the photos of the pics’ stars on the red carpet that are quickly transmitted around the world to a clutch of magazines and websites.

“Being on the red carpet and the steps of the Palais are almost as important as the films themselves,” says one studio marketing chieftain. “It’s theatrical.”

That’s the reason the majors have an ongoing presence at Cannes, even if they’re not pursuing prizes in the competition lineup. This year, there are two Hollywood tentpoles playing out of competition: Universal’s “Robin Hood,” which opens the fest, and 20th Century Fox’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

“It starts the momentum. Cannes is very, very efficient,” one top Fox exec says. “You go to Cannes because you want to excite a worldwide audience. You don’t put these kind of films there to be critical darlings.”

Reviewers at Cannes may have skewered Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code,” the fest opener in 2006, but it certainly didn’t hurt the film’s performance. “Da Vinci” grossed $540.7 million internationally and $217.5 million overseas.

Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” received mixed reviews at Cannes last year but went onto gross $313.6 million worldwide. The film did especially well at the foreign B.O., cuming $195 million.

“Cannes can especially help a film’s European release,” says Focus Features prexy Andrew Karpen. Focus Intl., the company’s sales arm, repped “Basterds” last year to foreign buyers.

Alejandro Amenabar’s ancient epic “Agora” may have not landed a U.S. distribution deal after premiering at Cannes last year, but it was bought up in Spain by Fox Intl. The film went on to become the highest grossing pic of all time in that territory.

But the recession has fostered a bit more restraint when it comes to lavish signage and outlandish stunts at the fest, as well as press junkets for films that don’t have a festival slot. In tough economic times, it’s hard to justify spending money on a movie that’s not playing in the fest.

Last year, then-top Disney execs Dick Cook and Mark Zoradi bucked that trend in doing a blowout press junket for Tim Burton’s 3D pic “A Christmas Carol” that included turning the front of the Carlton into a winter wonderland, complete with fake snow.

After Disney’s Rich Ross took over the film studio in October, he and his team grumbled about the marketing spend for “Christmas Carol,” particularly when the film opened softly. However, “Christmas Carol” picked up the pace in subsequent weeks, ultimately cuming $187.4 million internationally and $137.9 million domestically.

Patrick Wachsberger has been going to Cannes for three decades, and after years on the international side, he’s also got U.S. prospects on his mind now that he runs Summit with Rob Friedman.

“The market will be a little more complicated this year, because there are fewer finished films and more projects at the script stage,” Wachsberger says.

“A big part of why Cannes is so important is timing. There’s not much new business between AFM and Berlin. By May, projects are coming together,” Wachsberger said.

IM Global’s Stuart Ford recalls the excitement his company was able to whip up selling Bill Maher’s irreverent docu “Religulous” three years ago.

“You could only do something like that at Cannes — take 50 distributors of every nationality, put them on a terrace, pump them full of champagne and show them the movie. It created a feeding frenzy,” Ford says. “That was the kind of giddy Cannes experience that we hope for every year.”

Over the years, Cannes players have refined their approaches, adapting to new market trends and, now, to the recession.

One veteran sales agent remembers a Japanese company spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fly in food, cooks and artists from Japan for a party at Cannes.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to do that anymore,” says the sales agent of the leaner times these days. “It’s a matter of decency.”

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