Fest not sold on English

Finished titles more important than script projects

HOLLYWOOD — For buyers traveling to Cannes in search of good news: the weather is supposed to be nice. As for the market and festival, each seem to be caught in a flurry of cross-purpose.

Newly installed Cannes Film Festival topper Thierry Fremaux has inaugurated his reign with a lineup that’s teeming with English-language titles. Unfortunately, relatively few of them are available for sale, thanks to pre-buys.

That leaves buyers hungry for Cannes’ market product. However, until the unions make up their minds, the phrase “post-strike” is virtually meaningless. That could make Cannes’ sometimes specious project announcements somehow worth even less than the paper they’re printed on.

Few companies are keen to announce new projects at script stage, uncertain of the availability of actors and the necessary cash to fund them. As a result, publicity hungry producers are displaying a heretofore unknown sense of restraint.

Which leaves buyers to hunt in the “Waking Ned Devine” zone — searching for a finished title that’s terrific, and yet somehow has cruised into Cannes under the radar.

Indeed, it is one of those rare years when the Cannes marketplace lacks, at this point, an all-powerful title — a film with the star power to demand the undivided attention of U.S. buyers and to create the almighty “buzz” that can translate a film mart into a high-stakes poker game.

“It’s a startling year,” concurs one veteran U.S. acquisitions exec. “There are no U.K. or Australian films in the official lineup for the first time in years.

“There don’t seem to be many English-language films that have potential, and as for the more obscure foreign language titles, maybe there is a ‘Kolya’ or ‘Cinema Paradiso’ in there, but those probably won’t be discovered until the second or third market screening.”

Unlike previous years, there have been few U.S. acquisitions prior to the market. Only “Sol Goode” screened in the last two weeks, and it has yet to clinch a buyer.

IEG’s highly anticipated Jodie Foster-produced “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” has opted to screen to U.S. buyers after the fest, even though IEG’s top execs, Graham King and Pamela Pickering, will have a strong presence at Cannes as they finish up sales on the company’s Will Smith-starrer “Ali.”

“It’s definitely a sellers’ market, because there’s not a lot of product,” says Hadeel Reda, president of Winchester Films L.A., which is repping such titles as “Soul Assassin,” and “Jane Doe.” “People are buckling down, staying safe and being conservative because of the threat of the strikes.”

In fact, strike threats mean this year’s fest is also expected to see a decline in the number of top-level execs who make the annual pilgrimage to the French Riviera. Major agencies, which usually have a blanket presence during the event, have tightened purse strings, sending over only essential personnel.

As for studios, lavish Cannes parties are hardly a priority in lean economic times.

It remains to be seen if the normally heaving Hotel du Cap bar will be cluttered with stars, supermodels and top-level producers, or whether attendees will be confined to more somber activities.

One senior level agent who has attended Cannes for the last 15 years marveled that, for the first time ever, he was offered a room upgrade from the Carlton Hotel — an indicator that even top hotels are feeling the pinch.

“It’s been wild this year,” observes veteran travel agent Gary Mansour of Beverly Hills-based Mansour Travel. “I still have available rooms even at the Majestic. People are not going to Cannes in the same numbers, and those that are going are afraid to spend as much.”

As in years past, though, the fest will be host to a flotilla of stylish cocktail parties. And fear not. Veteran producers Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar’s yacht will once again grace the Cannes harbor.

Other highlights of the party circuit will include Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” bash, the Thai-themed event for “Tears of the Black Tiger” and the piece de resistance — New Line’s “Lord of the Rings” extravaganza.

And while the market lineup may lack high-gloss, high-anticipation entries, there are still plenty of titles to fill acquisition execs’ shopping lists.

Pics already being circled include FilmFour’s “Crush,” (aka “The Sad Fucker’s Club”), a comedy directed by John McKay and starring Andie MacDowell, Bill Paterson and Anna Chancellor; Jan Sverak’s U.K./Czech co-production “Dark Blue World”; and Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding.”

Other titles expected to be hotly sought after include David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” about a woman who survives a car crash on the famed L.A. road; Abel Ferrara’s “R-Xmas”; and the New Zealand film “Rain.”

In terms of pre-buys, execs will be focusing on “Dancer Upstairs,” from Lolafilms; “Rabbit Proof Fence,” starring Kenneth Branagh; Myriad Pictures’ “The Good Girl”; Good Machine’s “Buffalo Soldiers”; and Renaissance Films’ “The Safety of Objects.”International buyers figure to focus on Propaganda Films’ “24 Hours,” Capitol Films’ “Jeepers Creepers” and Lions Gate Film Intl.’s “Monster’s Ball.”

And, per usual, aside from trying to snap up key pictures screening in the marche, certain top-level sales companies are expected to see strong traffic in a more controlled atmosphere — their Croisette-based offices.