Mean but lean times at festival

After a nearly three-year slumber, the international market is waking up again.

Sales agents’ lineups are looking heftier. There’s newfound confidence in the Croisette air — so much so that some sales agents were looking to greenlight new pics off foreign distribution buys before their market opening. That could spell bidding wars.

But, as the international biz hits the first Cannes festival fully on the other side of the recession, it is still running up against a long-term contraction in many overseas markets.

So Cannes 2011 could present a favorable paradox: “Production levels haven’t returned to five years ago. But there are many more significant movies on the market compared to the last few years,” said Olivier Courson, chairman-CEO of StudioCanal, which is repping “The Last Photograph,” with Sean Penn and Christian Bale in talks to star.

Equity-backed newcomers including Philippe Rousselet and Nick Meyer are energizing production.

But, Courson added, production’s also “taking into account market demand, trending toward more reasonable budgets.”

So, yes, Cannes will unveil Focus Features Intl.’s “Cloud Atlas,” plus “Cobra,” produced by France’s Onyx Films and Studio 37, both budgeted at a declared $100 million-plus. And Summit is selling big-budget titles “Pompeii” and “Tarzan 3D,” which had buyers bidding before the market got under way.

However, sizable but lean films like “Unknown,” budgeted at less than $35 million, or the $32 million “Source Code” look more like Cannes 2011′s plat du jour.

Focus Features Intl., quieter at recent markets, has come in full force to Cannes with a five-strong slate ranging from “Cloud Atlas” to “Hyde Park on Hudson,” toplining Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Atlas,” a Wachowski siblings effort with six stories spanning different time periods, would most probably have been funneled through a major some years ago.

“We have had to look very carefully at budgets we’re making our movies for,” said Focus intl. prexy Alison Thompson.

“Films’ value worldwide has diminished,” she added. “It depends on a country-by-country basis, but the DVD market is in decline. The TV market in many countries is also redefining itself. And people are having to be much more conservative.”

Lionsgate Intl. is shopping Meryl Streep-Steve Carell pic “Great Hope Springs,” likely in the $40 million-$60 million budget range, plus more modestly budgeted horror pic “Nurse 3D.”

“We’re still not without our challenges,” said Helen Lee Kim, Lionsgate’s prexy of international sales. But, she added, “It feels like everyone is back on their feet.” However, “even more so, you have to be extremely smart about what you’re making and how much you’re making it for.”

IM Global is launching sales on James Wan pic “Spectre,” budgeted at less than $10 million, and more mainstream fare like Sam Worthington starrer “The Last Days of American Crime,” while FilmNation’s slate includes Relativity pic “The Brothers Grimm: Snow White” and Sundance darling “Take Shelter,” helmed by Jeff Nichols.

According to Vincent Maraval at Wild Bunch, who is presenting new films from Ken Loach, Abel Ferrara and Nicolas Winding Refn, plus buzzed-about “The Artist,” “budgets are going down everywhere except for countries where there are a lot of subsidies and legal obligations for broadcasters — Spain, Italy, France.”

Also encouraging lower-budget filmmaking, some titles — “The Last Exorcism,” for instance — have hit paydirt, said Vicente Canales at Film Factory, which is unveiling Juan-Carlos Fresnadillo-scripted “The Path.”

Rewards in a contracted, but more vigorous foreign market can still be large: International sales revenues on Wild Bunch’s “Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia” should be $43 million-$57 million, Maraval said.

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