Cannes Hopefuls Look to Tie the Knot in Increasingly Fickle Market

Perhaps it was a case of too much rosé, but producer Pascal Borno will never forget the game of Truth or Dare he played with Madonna at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. At some point in the middle of a boozy meal in a crowded restaurant, Dino de Laurentiis goaded the pop diva to plant one on “Nikita” star Anne Parillaud, a fellow diner.

“She says, ‘With pleasure,’ and reaches over and kisses Anne,” remembers Borno. “It was a loud venue, and the moment after she did that, you could hear a pin drop.”

Now in its 69th year, Cannes has survived because it serves this cocktail of sex, celebrity and celluloid. “It’s the only festival that offers up what’s left of old Hollywood,” says Borno, whose documentary, “Wonders of the Sea 3D,” bows in the upcoming Cannes market.

Yet the movie business that the fortnight in the south of France celebrates is no longer what it was three decades ago when Madonna and Parillaud locked lips. Indeed, Hollywood will have a much reduced presence — none of the major studios will use the gathering to premiere a film.

Cannes is a salute to art, not commerce, but the financial underpinnings of the indie film business are imperiled by new forms of distribution and a fractured media landscape. Having an auteur at the helm is no longer enough to guarantee big business. There’s too much quality television on the air, with some programming, such as “Big Little Lies,” boasting the kind of movie stars that routinely grace the red carpet at the Palais. That’s to say nothing of the banquet of entertainment offerings available on Netflix or other streaming services. For every “Moonlight,” which grossed nearly $30 million on a $1.5 million budget, there are scores of indies like “Wilson” or “A Monster Calls” that die at the box office.

“Excellence is what’s working,” said Glen Basner, CEO of FilmNation. “If a movie is just good, that’s not enough to succeed theatrically.”

Most of the studios and distributors who come to Cannes on the prowl for product won’t be looking at the movies in competition because they mostly have homes. Instead, they’ll stake out hotel suites poring over sizzle reels and scripts, searching for films that can cut through the clutter.

Most of the projects being tracked by buyers are packages — films that have directors and actors attached but have yet to shoot. “Freakshift” with Alicia Vikander, “Richard Says Goodbye” with Johnny Depp and “Georgetown” with Christoph Waltz are among the titles generating heat.

“It’s harder to wait for the finished film,” said Howard Cohen, co-founder of Roadside Attractions. “There aren’t many that are working. Scarcity drives up prices.”

In the past, buyers might have waited to see a completed film before reaching for their checkbooks. Now, Amazon, Netflix and other deep-pocketed buyers have made that difficult. In Sundance, for instance, Amazon shelled out $12 million for “The Big Sick,” a buzzy romantic comedy, while Netflix ponied up $12.5 million for “Mudbound,” an acclaimed historical drama.

Those companies make the bulk of their revenue through subscriptions, so if one of their bigger purchases fails to connect with audiences, they’re able to dust themselves off and walk away unscathed. That’s not the case with other indie labels. The Weinstein Co., Broad Green Pictures and EuropaCorp are a few of the indies that have struggled to make money off theatrical distribution. These studios have bought hot titles such as “Begin Again,” “Knight of Cups” or “Their Finest” only to see them collapse at the multiplexes. At festivals, executives say, it’s easy to think you’ve discovered a breakout.

“Festivals are cloistered environments,” said Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures. “A film might work terrifically there, but when it gets out to the broader public, you find it’s not as appealing.”

In the hothouse atmosphere of Cannes, indie players search for any advantage. Sony Pictures Classics chief Tom Bernard opts to rent a bicycle, which he insists cuts down on the time it takes for him to jet from one screening to another.

“If you don’t get there early, you don’t get a seat,” said Bernard. “If a movie’s good, it spreads like wildfire, and that means it costs that much more to buy.

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.

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