Biz endures a buzz cut

Lack of hot titles has buyers thinking production, alliances

Cannes has hit a plateau.

The vast majority of the deals announced this year prove that its focus rapidly is shifting from straight sales and acquisitions to chasing scripts, setting up co-productions and forming strategic alliances.

In contrast to earlier editions, neither the market nor the festival has yielded a single buzz acquisition and — excluding the Leonardo Di-Caprio starrer “American Psycho” — no brand new pictures to make buyers reach for their wallets.

As both the festival and market draw to a close, distribution execs are not only expressing disappointment at this year’s slim pickings but are underlining how they intend to take the initiative.

“Our expectations of the finished films going into Cannes were not met,” says Mark Ordesky, prexy of Fine Line Features. “Going forward, it’s clear that, in order to succeed, specialized companies are going to have to shift — without abandoning acquisitions — more toward production.”

On the acquisitions front, the busiest specialized distributor was Sony Pictures Classics, which bought three films. October bought only two; Fox Searchlight and Miramax one; and Goldwyn, Fine Line and Paramount didn’t buy any.

Jacques-Eric Strauss, head of French sales company President Films, notes: “What’s happened is that most of the projects in Cannes are pre-sold in the key territories. That means that the distributors are spending their evenings reading scripts because they know that they have to get into projects early on.”

Ordesky already has pushed Fine Line toward script buys. At Cannes, Fine Line picked up worldwide rights to Hat Trick Films’ “The Sleeping Dictionary” and to an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “Ripley’s Game.”

Jerome Paillard, director of the Marche International du Film, pointed out that of the 1,600 projects listed in the MIF Guide, around half were in development or pre-production, and many companies were using the market to set up these projects as well as completing sales on their finished films.

In general, the market was dominated by a small number of companies that appeared to complete a huge amount of business.

This activity was centered around co-financing deals between producers and foreign distribs, and strategic alliances between competing distribs.

Highlights included:

  • Overseas Filmgroup and the Ministry of Film formed a new company, Filmtown, to make five to eight pics a year.

  • Artisan Entertainment inked a production and distribution alliance with Alliance; Alliance itself signed a production deal with Natural Nylon and closed in on another with Focus Films.

  • Seagal-Nasso Prods. cemented its already lavish financing by bringing an Italian distrib consortium and Sweden’s Svensk Filmindustri into a co-financing arrangement on six pics.

  • Kushner-Locke Co. unveiled a three-year co-production and distribution deal with Universal.

  • Quadra Entertainment formed an alliance with RKO Pictures to handle the foreign rights to 11 remakes over the next 3 1/2 years.

Financing companies moving ahead aggressively included Newmarket Capital Group and Flashpoint. Newmarket and Mutual Film Co. formed a new company to make several $8 million-$15 million films a year. Flashpoint is poised to invest around $30 million in five pics from “Secrets & Lies” producer Simon Channing-Williams.

On the picture front, an unprecedented number of agents and producers arrived in Cannes to set up new movies.

Creative Artists Agency alone was pushing more than 10 pics, including Richard Eyre’s “Mary Stuart,” Simon Wincer’s “The Loneliness of Always,” Julia Ormond’s “The Dreaming Child,” Kevin Bacon’s “Girl Gone,” George Romero’s “Before I Wake,” and Sandra Bullock’s “Gun Shy.”

CAA also was repping the production and distribution activities of several Hollywood producers in their efforts to set up indie pictures, possibly with foreign partners. These included: Wolfgang Petersen and Gail Katz’s Radiant Prods., Robert Redford’s South Fork Pictures, Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal’s Tribeca Prods., Jonathan Demme and Ed Saxon’s Clinica Estetico and Gary Oldman and Douglas Urbanski’s SE8.

But none of this, which tends to go on behind closed doors away from the prying eyes of the Croisette, helps create buzz at a festival, especially for finished films in the market or in competition.