Cannes caters to H’wood hoopla

'Matrix,' 'T3' hype powers Croisette promo parade

Hollywood, a fickle mistress to the Cannes Film Festival in previous years, is puckering up for a big French kiss.

Despite a low-key presence in the fest competition, Hollywood is especially aggressive in its presence at the market — and, to an unprecedented level, is using the fest as an international press junket.

There are several notable shifts at the 56th annual gathering.

  • A growing number of high-profile studio films is being put on the block.

Faced with soaring production costs and new budget pressures at home, the majors increasingly are partnering with producers and sales agents to shop foreign territories on pics like Universal/DreamWorks’ epic “Alexander the Great” and the Miramax drama “An Unfinished Life.”

  • Hollywood is in buying mode. Though acquisitions execs say the 2003 lineup is unusually esoteric, the majors need product. Scores of execs are scouring for material, buoyed by the success of last year’s roster, which included hits like “The Pianist” and “Bowling for Columbine.”

  • Studios are concentrating marketing firepower on the throngs of reporters, fans and paparazzi, treating the historic fest more than ever as a publicity showcase.

While the intensity of their efforts is new, the methods are surprisingly traditional: press conferences, a blitz of banner ads strung from hotels and lavish parties on boats.

In a time-warpy bit of planning, Arnold Schwarzenegger will be the celeb lure at a fete on the Anheuser-Busch yacht. While it’s in honor of “T3,” the event recalls similar hoopla for Schwarzenegger action pics in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

As usual, the Carlton Hotel has tarted out its Belle Epoque facade like a multiplex lobby, with a flurry of ads for high-profile films. But this year it’s franchise fever, as the hotel is draped in banners for fare like “Charlie’s Angels 2,” “Bad Boys 2” and “The Matrix Reloaded.”

And while the grassy area in front of the hotel usually offers giant-size displays for various pics, now it’s all devoted to one film. Sony, which is launching the international campaign for “T3,” has built a movie set in front of the hotel, complete with Terminator robots and holographic posters in which Schwarzenegger morphs into Kristanna Loken.

A dearth of finished films in the market reflects an international financing field that has suffered setbacks in recent years, including the collapse of the German market and the decline of the Euro pay TV market, which has led to the disappearance of players like StudioCanal and Film Four.

“The market is in a bad way,” says Initial Entertainment chief Graham King. “We usually go through spells when a couple of markets are in the toilet. I’ve never seen it this bad, and it’s never been territories that matter as much as these do,” he said, referring to France, Germany and Italy.

“That’s a big percentage of your budget that you can’t make up anywhere,” King adds. “You can always make up the small territories.”

Lacking these financing sources, studio specialty arms are under heightened pressure to acquire product at the script stage in order to remain competitive.

“It’s all about finding material, finding the great script,” says Screen Gems senior VP of acquisitions and co-productions Benedict Carver. “You can’t afford to sit around waiting for a sales agent to call.”

That means acquisitions execs have to get into gear earlier in the film process.

“People are always looking for key points during the life of a film, whether it’s the script and cast, footage or the complete movie,” says Focus Features co-topper David Linde. “You focus your efforts on these key points in a market situation. It’s a way to get everybody at once.”

Focus acquired Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” at Mifed after it was shown to a number of U.S. distribs. Pic is in competition at Cannes.

Despite the paucity of finished films available for U.S. distribution, acquisitions execs will put many fest screenings on their must-see list.

The comparatively obscure selection — only 17 of the 56 entries in the official lineups are English-language films, and 24 of the 25 films in Directors Fortnight are world premieres — has created a punishing schedule for U.S. distribs who can’t afford to miss the gems.

Buyers last week expressed interest in the fest opener, “Fanfan La Tulipe,” as well as Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” Ewan McGregor starrer “Young Adam” and Aussie pic “Japanese Story.” Driving studio interest in these acquisitions is the continuing effort to minimize financial risk on their release slates.

But producers scrambling to arrange financing for nonstudio product are facing a tougher market.

“We know we can’t go in and kill the buyers,” King says. “I believe the buyers need product. But they need good product. They don’t need libraries thrown down their throats.”

The cautious mood among buyers and financiers means the job of brokering multiparty production deals remains a grueling process — one that unfolds in fits and starts throughout the calendar year, not just at festivals.

“The logistical process of taking so many moving parts and making them fit together to be a fully financed movie is incredibly painstaking,” says attorney John Sloss, who in 2001 founded Cinetic Media, a consulting firm that secures financing for international co-productions.

Cannes remains a key staging ground for such deals. And it is seething this year with agencies and producer reps trying to connect talent to international financing sources at a time when that financing landscape is in flux, and when cost pressure at the studios has created a greater need for indie financing.

The bigger talent agencies this year are focusing on finding new production funds. As agencies and consultants increase the volume of deals financed outside studio slates, the Cannes market is likely to grow even more robust.

Sloss’s volume is increasing: He’s now pulling financing together for one movie a month. But, he concedes, it’s hard work.

“To the extent that you can systematize this process,” Sloss says, “you deserve a star on Hollywood Boulevard.”

(Cathy Dunkley contributed to this report.)

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