Rx: Bigger stars and better pics

Last week, as Cannes was rolling into its first weekend, I wrote in this space about the “disquieting calm on the Cote d’Azur” and speculated about the future of Cannes as indie marketplace.

That Eurotrack asked troubling questions. This one provides answers courtesy of literally dozens of discussions with film biz pros on the Croisette. Few wanted to be quoted but no one was without something to say, and it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The key points heard were:

  • “Send in the stars; we need help!”

  • “The indies’ greatest hope? The studios, because they’re way too corporate to make edgy movies!”

  • “Badges schmadges, screw official statistics, this market is off!”

  • “Low-end U.S. product may be down, but exportable product from outside the States is booming!”

The observation about the stars came from someone with pictures in the market. Perhaps the lack of superstars makes Cannes 2001 another casualty of the threatened actors strike. It’s particularly poignant, given that this year’s fest was touted only a few weeks ago as proof that Cannes had repaired or improved its relations with Hollywood.

What no one noticed was, while Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob had chosen many U.S.-based filmmakers, including a couple of big studio pictures — Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” and DreamWorks “Shrek” — after the opening-night bash with star Nicole Kidman on hand for photo ops, the movie-star well went kind of dry.

“Shrek’s” great reviews, historic presence as the first animated film in decades in Competition and seemingly assured international box office didn’t cancel the reality that, while animated characters help the bottom line by not demanding jets, it’s stars who demand jets who draw crowds to the Croisette.

The attendant publicity is good for the folks trying to close deals. When Jack Nicholson announced he couldn’t leave his Nebraska location shoot to party with Sean Penn in Cannes for “The Pledge,” it was a sad portent of the wattage that was lacking. Most of the American films, from Ferrara to Lynch to the Coens to Hartley, were decidedly not sporting the major stars that send paparazzi hearts aflutter.

The hopeful view that the indie marketplace could still thrive thanks to studio timidity echoes the view of another market honcho, American Film Marketing Assn. exec VP Jonathan Wolf, who asks — and answers: “What share of AOL Time Warner is Warner Bros. Pictures?

The old studios reflected the personalities of their founders. They had muscle and risk-taking.

So even though the market share of the studios is up against the indies, there’s good news on two fronts: They’re more into split-rights deals, and they’ve ceded the ground for adventurous and edgy pictures to the kinds of producers and filmmakers you find here at Cannes and at AFM.”

Wolf’s point, for those with short memories, is that a film like “Pulp Fiction,” which was a Palme d’Or winner that grossed north of $100 million, is unlikely to pop up from the fertile minds of studio bean counters.

As for quiet in the streets, one might ask how the restaurateurs and hoteliers with empty seats and rooms could reconcile their gloomy stats with the buoyant statistics of the official market, which showed an uptick in attendance.

Another vet of AFM, Cannes and Mifed suggested, “Yeah, the badge count is up. The Riviera is great, they’ve got screening rooms and better facilities, but the number of buyers, sellers and staffers in hotel rooms is way, way down.”

In a particularly exciting development that could mean a very differently complexioned Cannes from the U.S. indie-dominated mart of years past, consider the following: The biggest grossing foreign-language movie in America only a few years ago grossed about $24 million.

Then Benigni busted through the B.O. ceiling with “Life Is Beautful” and did almost $60 million. At that time, I asked several foreign-language film producers if this was a hopeful sign. Given their years in the American B.O. wilderness, I didn’t blame them for unanimously saying “no way.” Last week, “Crouching Tiger” passed the $125 million mark.

Where did it premiere? Where this lovely, sunny May, you could find a bounty of “Tiger” knock-offs, copycats, wannabes, and maybe even the next international works of daring, vision and genius …

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