This was the Cannes when the strong got stronger, and the rest just faded a little bit further into the wallpaper of the Carlton Hotel. The big distribs dug deep into their pockets to shell out top dollar for the blockbuster product from the big sellers, but further down the mountain the slopes were bare and the pickings decidedly thin.

“The market side of this year’s Cannes from all indications has been a disappointment,” says Jere Hausfater, senior VP of acquisitions for Buena Vista Intl. and BV Home Video. “No one has found the needle in the haystack. The global trend is that there is a proliferation of production, but there’s a finite amount of good material,” he muses. In other words, the number of films is increasing but not the number of good ones, and that means buyers are doing more legwork for diminishing returns.

Few if any finished films leapt out at the market to send buyers into a spin, although the screening of Miramax’s “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” had foreign distribs scrambling for tickets when the pic’s hot American reviews started humming over the fax machines late last week.

Big projects attracting the most heat as pre-buys included “Nixon,” “Up Close and Personal” and “Evita” (Summit is handling foreign sales on all three); “Mulholland Falls” and “White Squall” (Largo); “Barb Wire” and “Portrait of a Lady” (Polygram Film International); “Eddie” (Island World); “The Fifth Element” (Gaumont); “Four Rooms” and “From Dusk Til Dawn” (Miramax); and the two Jeremy Thomas projects, “Crash” (Alliance MDP) and “Blood and Wine” (Majestic).

“There’s a growing polarization between the top sales companies and the less well-financed ones,” observes market veteran Ian Jessel, who was at Cannes kick-starting his new Condor banner.

The market was characterized by the growing presence of powerful multiterritory buyers Buena Vista, Fox, Columbia TriStar and the fast-expanding Euro wannabes Polygram and Bertelsmann’s BMG.

In Latin America, local distribs are banding together into continentwide buying groups to acquire rights to major product across the whole region. One such group, Union Latino Arnerica, made its debut at Cannes, picking up J&M’s “The English Patient” and Summit’s “Up Close and Personal.”

Competition from the multiterritory buyers for the dwindling supply of top product is increasing the heat in the countries where they operate, particularly Spain and South America, forcing local distribs to up the ante in order to counter the attractions of one-stop shopping. Buena Vista nipped in ahead of Fox to buy several Euro territories on two Spelling pics, “Moll Flanders” and “Unforgettable,” while Warner did a similar deal for “Stephen King’s Thinner,” also from Spelling.

Prices at the top end were stratospheric. Gaumont asked and got $10 million from Japan for the Luc Besson-Bruce Willis collaboration “The Fifth Element,” with JVC picking up the pic. Polygram paid a reported $12 million for rights to Largo’s “Mulholland Falls” in the U.K., Benelux and Spain.

Also putting upward pressure on prices is the growing trouble that independent distribs suffer to gain access to screens in some territories, where the stranglehold of the majors seems to be tightening.

According to one leading seller, that makes distribs all the more desperate to secure the mega-star, mega-buck Hollywood product, which will give them the leverage with exhibitors to get the rest of their release slate into the cinemas. The result is bids on the biggest pics that make no financial sense if judged purely in terms of one film.

The extreme case of the former Yugoslavia is a vivid microcosm of this worldwide trend. Despite the war, moviegoing there is buoyant, but the fighting has created a drastic shortage of screens. Moreover, the ethnic conflict has spilled over into the film-buying arena, with buyers from the different communities seeking to drive each other out of the theaters and out of business.

At Cannes, that pressure-cooker situation resulted in Yugoslav-region rights to “Showgirls” and “Cutthroat Island” being sold for a reported $250,000 apiece, wildly out of proportion to the value of that territory.

Such desirable titles are in increasingly short supply as the big sellers move toward direct distribution, as with the Turner companies and Polygram, or at least long-term co-ventures and output deals.

That’s true even at the highbrow end, where arthouse pace-setter Ciby Sales is seeking to create a network of international distribution alliances, which will reduce its need to sell picture-by-picture in the major territories. The first of these long-term relationships, with Globe in Australasia, was unveiled at Cannes. Globe signed for Ciby’s “Georgia,” “Underground,” “Dead Man” and “The Flower of My Secret.”

One finished film that did sell strongly after premiering in the fest was “La Haine” (Hate). Studio Canal Plus exec John Kochman said he closed deals worth $1.5 million for the black-and-white French-lingo pic at Cannes, roughly half the production budget. Buyers included Metro Tartan and the BBC in the U.K., Concorde in Germany, Italy’s Mikado, Golem in Spain, Kuzui in Japan, Dendy in Oz and several other minor territories. Two distribs are haggling over a U.S. deal.

BMG, which took its first plunge as a multiterritory buyer at the American Film Market, surfaced with a handful of pickups at Cannes. It bought Capitol’s “American Buffalo” and “The Secret Agent” for Spain, Portugal and Latin America, and for Spain it took Majestic’s “Blood and Wine,” “Swann” and “Cry the Beloved Country.” BMG also bought eight pics for Germany, Austria and Switzerland; five for Italy.

Polygram signed pre-Cannes for U.K., Benelux and French rights to Channel 4’s “Trainspotting,” the upcoming project from the team that made “Shallow Grave,” and is negotiating to add Spanish and Australian rights.

As a seller, Polygram reported strong trading on the Pamela Anderson starrer “Barb Wire” and Jane Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady,” with execs expecting to close sales worth $20 million across the two pics (budgeted at $20 million and $27 million, respectively) by Cannes’ end.

Korea’s Samsung, Brazil’s Top Tape and Argentina’s Transmundo took both pics, while “Barb” also went to Artisti Associati in Italy, Germany’s Scotia and Spring in Taiwan. Japan’s JVC bought “Portrait” and the fest competition entry “Carrington,” which also went to Scotia for Germany.

Gaumont closed deals for all Southeast Asia and Australasia on “The Fifth Element,” but execs said they were holding off on European deals, where the prices were making distribs blanch on a film with no script available for them to read. The French major placed Mel Brooks’ “Dracula” in Italy with Medusa and in Latin America, Germany, Spain, Korea, Japan and Australia.

And in a rare example of a non-English-language film being sold extensively before it is completed, “Guardian Angels,” directed by “Les Visiteurs” helmer Jean-Marie Poire and starring Gerard Depardieu, was sold by Gaumont to Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Italy and Korea.

Plus, London-based J&M sold “T-Rex,” “The English Patient,” “The Leading Man” and “The Grotesque” to Lauren Films in Spain and “The Grotesque” to Japan’s Tohokushinsha. Rank was deluged with interest in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” after its fest screening here, and in the new Savoy project “The Stupids.” Lumiere in France and Italy’s RCS were among the first to close deals on “To Die For,” which was on course to sell out worldwide by the end of the market. “The Stupids” pre-sold on the strength of script and Tom Arnold to Germany’s Senator, Italian Intl. Film in Italy, Spain’s Filmax and Taiwan’s Golden Harvest, and to more than a dozen minor territories.

Capitol Films came to Cannes with its strongest lineup, and partners Jane Barclay and Sharon Harel left saying it had been the company’s best market. Highlights included the sale of Agnieszka Holland’s “Total Eclipse” to Germany’s Senator; a passel of pacts for “American Buffalo” (including Gaga in Japan) and “The Secret Agent”; and much goal-mouth action on the Brit soccer drama “When Saturday Comes,” which premiered at Cannes and sold to Guild in the U. K, Gaga in Japan and Cecchi Gori in Italy.

By contrast, execs at France’s Pandora Cinema confess they have found the going tough. Although the British surf comedy “Blue Juice” sold to Scandinavia, Thailand and Israel, and Japan’s Gaga nabbed “Frankie Starlight,” execs said they made a mistake in booking too few screenings. As a result, busy buyers are not beating the path to the Pandora door.

Michael Williams contributed to this report.