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Cannes fest proves no-buy zone in ’99

SPC, Goldwyn active in acquisitions

CANNES — U.S. independent distribs may consider scaling back their Cannes contingents after the pitiful number of film acquisitions made at this year’s fest.

The three heaviest hitters — Miramax, Fine Line and Artisan — had scores of senior and junior execs scouring the Croisette screenings for elusive gems this year, to little effect.

The total amount spent on buying U.S. rights to finished films at Cannes this year ended up at $3 million to $4 million. That can’t be much more than the cost of bringing over a team of execs, paying for their accommodation at the Majestic or Hotel du Cap and organizing a beachfront party.

Done deals

The first problem was that most bigger acquisitions were made immediately prior to the festival, as Miramax took “East Is East,” Fine Line “Simpatico,” Lions Gate “8-1/2 Women” and Disney “The Straight Story.”

Then, starting with Nikita Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia,” the fest’s opening night film, there was one disappointment after another.

Fine Line nonetheless put in offers on a number of pics, including Directors Fortnight entry “The Cup” (about soccer-crazed Tibetan monks) and English comedy “Beautiful People,” but hadn’t closed on anything by late Friday. Miramax did not buy a single film.

As the fest waned, Artisan finally bought a pic: Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai.”

Long ‘Dog’

The Cannes screening most eagerly anticipated by acquisition execs was the out-of-competition “Dogma,” which Miramax has to sell off for domestic. While a deal on the Kevin Smith-directed pic is likely, early reaction to it was less than ecstatic, with particular concerns expressed about its 128-minute running time.

The most active buyers at the festival were niche distribs such as Samuel Goldwyn Films and Sony Pictures Classics. Goldwyn, for example, bought U.S. rights to “The Carriers Are Waiting,” the French-lingo comedy playing in Directors Fortnight. SPC bought “Me Myself I,” and was bidding against Fine Line for “The Cup.”

Sources said SPC is most likely to secure the pic. Paramount Classics, a studio startup competing mainly in the arthouse arena, has closed a deal with G2 for distribution rights to Sofia Coppola’s largely well-received directorial debut, “The Virgin Suicides.”

Missed opportunities

This was the year in which many films seemed to fall between the cracks. Michael Winterbottom’s “Wonderland” and Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” were just two pics that some U.S. execs admired but deemed too small or dark for the domestic market. Jeremy Thomas was even reported to be considering releasing “The Cup” himself in the U.S. if he didn’t get offers that he liked.

Overall, acquisitions activity was limited and well down from last year. Most indie companies are increasing their own production, and have little need to buy scores of pics to fill their TV deals.

Many companies also complained about the quality of pics screening in the market. The few titles that generated buzz, such as “American Pie,” were generally spoken for domestically and in many foreign territories.

Fox Searchlight, Lions Gate and Trimark all had a quiet Cannes, announcing no buys or pre-buys. Attending its first Cannes, USA Films (the result of a merger between October and Gramercy) is in a period of transition. Company toppers Scott Greenstein and Russell Schwartz focused on meeting filmmakers and setting up new projects, including “A Night at McCool’s” and “At Home With the Marquis de Sade.”

Destination: Cannes

Also attending its first Cannes fest was Steve Stabler’s Destination Films, which pre-bought U.S. rights to “Drowning Mona” but did not acquire any finished pics.

With acquisitions flat, the majority of business activity this year was in the financing and production arenas.

Miramax, Fine Line and Artisan all made several top production announcements. And while there were few big distribution deals for either Europe or the U.S., there were plenty of launches of sales companies, and of new (and weird) sources of financing, as execs jostled with each other to use the Cannes platform to generate some ink.