With Cannes on the horizon, flush distribs dance around tentpoles

If “cautious optimism” was the catchphrase going into last year’s Cannes, this year’s starting line echoes a tone more of “cautious ambition.”

Sales agents brought a number of well-received big-budget projects to market last year, notably “Cloud Atlas,” “Pompeii” and “Enders Game.” But this year, with the indie sector stronger theatrically than it has been in years, and with international distribs flush with success from pics like the “Twilight” franchise and “The Hunger Games,” as well as “The Iron Lady,” “The Woman in Black,” “The Artist” and “Midnight in Paris” all having performed well territorially, there’s a feeling among buyers that bigger is better.

Indeed, the theatrical business has proved a boon for key distribs, considering the decline of DVD in markets such as Spain, Italy and Scandinavia, and with TV sales tougher than ever, particularly in Italy. Moreover, VOD has yet to gain traction outside of the U.S. and Blighty.

Peter Philipsen, general manager of independent films at Nordisk Film, one of two international distribs (including Brazil’s Paris Filmes), to have benefited from both the “Twilight” franchise and the “Hunger Games,” says that finding such pics can be elusive.

“There are not a lot of franchises in this business that really work, let alone in the independent market,” Philipsen notes. “The last one before ‘Twilight’ was ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which was huge and gave a really big boost to the business as a whole.”

To date, the “Twilight” franchise has grossed $62.2 million in Scandinavia for the distrib, while “Hunger Games” sits at $12.6 million and counting. Philipsen notes that Nordisk’s handling of the “Hunger Games” release was aided by having previously released the “Twilight” pics.

“It was very much the same mechanics marketing-wise,” he says. “Both were from a book franchise, targeted at roughly the same market, and the material wasn’t very well-known outside of the U.S.” (which benefited from huge awareness of the Suzanne Collins’ tomes, having sold 24 million copies before the film’s release).

In the U.K., where sales of the book sat at 275,000 copies before the pic bowed (and only half that figure before Christmas 2011), it was the film itself that drove book sales. Now, with “Hunger Game” taking in £20.2 million ($32 million) over its first four weeks of release — by far its biggest box office over that period — Lionsgate U.K. CEO Zygi Kamasa sees a clearer future for the distrib. “We’ve already dated the next film (of the trilogy for some time in) 2013, and that’s rare for our business to have something on the calendar that we know is going to be a hit,” he says.

Rodolphe Buet, CEO of Studiocanal Germany, for which “Games” is likely to surpass the 2 million admission mark — the distrib’s highest such total in more than five years — says he hopes this kind of success not only proves the company can handle big day-and-date releases, but serves as a strong sign to local exhibs that more good news is on the way.

“It’s always a question mark for them to know if an indie is able to market a film in the same way as the studios, and now they know that Studiocanal is prepared to invest in a strong P&A commitment (in this case, above $5 million) for a movie,” Buet says. “Hopefully, they will remember this next time we bring them a project.”

Following the pattern of “Twilight,” returns on the subsequent “Hunger Games” titles should be even stronger than the original. But while foreign buyers may come to expect boffo B.O., few have secured rights to the pics, for which Lionsgate is almost certain to demand a premium.

Philipsen notes that at Cannes, many distribs’ positions will be affected by what is on offer.

“There might be a handful of projects that we’re interested in,” he says. “It’s not like (franchise films) appear at every market — it’s fairly rare material.”

Some of the projects that could feed the post-”Hunger Games” demand are teenage witch-pic “Beautiful Creatures,” based on the bestseller by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, which Summit/Lions-gate shopped to buyers in Berlin, and Constantin’s sci-fi fantasy pic “The Mortal Instruments,” based on the tomes by Cassandra Clare. Sequel to “Red,” “Red 2″ — from Lionsgate Intl. — is also whetting buyers’ appetites.

Cannes will also be the first time Lionsgate Intl. is making “Games” sequel “Catching Fire” available to buyers.

Medusa Films’ Faruk Alatan says he’s already seeing some interesting projects at Cannes with budgets between $50 million-$60 million.

Los Angeles-based distributors rep Mirjam Wertheim says buyers have become much more disciplined, pointing to a buoyant AFM in November. “They don’t buy just because they like the sales agent anymore,” she says. “They know what works for them in their territory, they know what their niche is.”

Still, there is concern that with the high demand for the next big thing, some producers bringing such projects to market will arrive on the Croisette with underdeveloped and underfinanced material.

“You try to identify these projects beforehand and not spend valuable time at markets discussing them,” Philipsen says.

Nevertheless, Kamasa sees a more ambitious market, willing to pay for the certainty bigger movies bring. “Everybody is going to be buoyed by the fact that we can do mainstream, so we can be aggressive in buying bigger movies,” he says. At the same time, he cautions that just because “Games” figures to give Lionsgate a minimum three-pic hit franchise, it doesn’t mean the distrib itself will be shopping only for possible tentpoles.

“We’ll still be a cautious, prudent buyer,” he says. “There’s no doubt that it’s a great comfort economically to know that we’re going to generate a lot of profit on this franchise, but we have to try and balance our slate with movies that complement that.”

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