Deals can’t wait for Palais party

Bullock, Fiennes ink for 'Vapor'

CANNES — “Fanfan la Tulipe” star Penelope Cruz and boyfriend Tom Cruise won’t take the red-carpet trip up the Palais steps for the opening-night gala at the 56th Cannes Film Festival until tonight, but the dealmaking is already in high gear.

Among the more intriguing developments: Sandra Bullock and Ralph Fiennes have committed to star in Neil LaBute’s “Vapor” for London-based Renaissance Films.

The confluence of concerns — the Iraq conflict, the SARS outbreak and Tuesday’s general strike over pensions in France — has subdued the mood somewhat, and the city reportedly has more hotel vacancies than usual. The glitches have thrown off the fest’s pace, with execs complaining that arriving early has made them lose momentum.

While most fest attendees arranged travel skeds so as not to be held up by the strike, Meg Ryan’s luggage was sent to parts unknown and others had trouble making plane connections. Asian delegations had extensive medical checkups before traveling, and the fest has announced that a medical station will be available every day in the Palais.

Focus on films

With sunny skies and the traditionally Felliniesque street scene percolating, the spotlight now can focus squarely on the business of films.

“Vapor,” budgeted just below $30 million, is based on Amanda Filipacchi’s novel about a struggling actress who saves the life of a stranger. Pic, which is due to shoot in September, is described by the producers as “a fable of love and pain and humor and surprise.”

Warner Bros., where Bullock has a production deal, is a favorite to pick up North American rights, although three other U.S. distribs are said to be chasing the project.

Other high-profile projects under way:

  • Capitol Films will team with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for “Five Children and It,” based on E. Nesbit’s classic children’s novel. Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Freddie Highmore will star in the $20 million pic, to be directed by Creature Shop topper John Stephenson.

“It” is the story of five siblings who are sent to stay with their uncle (Branagh) in a strange house by the sea. While exploring, they dig up an ill-tempered 8,000-year-old Psammead, or sand fairy (voiced by Izzard), who grants them one wish a day. But the consequences are never quite what the children intend.

Pic, which starts shooting in July, will blend live action with animatronics and computer graphics. The setting will be considerably updated from the 1902 book’s original period, but it will not be explicitly contemporary. Script is by David Solomon, with Nick Hirschkorn and Lisa Henson producing.

The Isle of Man Film Commission will co-finance the project. The producers also are in discussions for coin from the U.K. Film Council’s Premiere Fund, which was involved in the development of the project.

  • Miramax has taken North American rights to “Escape,” which Russell Mulcahy will direct for Davis Panzer Prods. IAC Films is selling the $25 million action project, which is effectively a sequel to Alan Parker’s 1978 “Midnight Express,” although it is not being marketed as such.

It is based on Billy Hayes’ book “The Return,” which recounts what happened after he broke out of the Turkish prison in “Midnight Express.”

“Escape,” scripted by David Abramowitz and John Nichols, keeps that basic plot, but relocates the story to an unidentified generic Arab country and moves the action to the present day.

The project has been in development with Davis Panzer and IAC for several years, going through dozens of rewrites. At one point, Ridley Scott was onboard to direct and produce.

  • Phoenix Pictures will produce “Miss Potter,” the true story of British children’s author Beatrix Potter, with Bruce Beresford directing. Pic will be produced by Medavoy, David Kirschner and Corey Sienega.

Pic, penned by Richard Maltby Jr., explores the love, loss and struggle for independence of the young spinster who overcame a domineering mother and the chauvinism of Victorian England to become a bestselling author. It is expected to start shooting this fall in the U.K.

  • Summit Entertainment has picked up international sales rights to the Brian Grazer-produced documentary “Inside Deep Throat,” with Universal Pictures giving a domestic release to the docu.

Directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (“Party Monster”), pic is financed by HBO. In addition to Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, pic is produced by Barbato and Bailey’s World of Wonder Prods. and HBO.

Released in 1972, “Deep Throat” is the most successful X-rated film in history. Estimated to have earned more than $600 million on a $25,000 budget, it also became one of the most profitable films of any kind.

Summit previously handled international rights on the feature doc “Buena Vista Social Club.”

  • Luc Besson is developing a $15 million pic about soccer, marking the 100th anniversary of the FIFA Intl. Football Federation next year. Besson’s EuropaCrop will produce the one-hour pic in English.

  • Jennifer Jason Leigh will star with Christian Bale and Spanish thesp Aitana Sanchez-Gijon in psychological suspense thriller “The Machinist,” to be directed by Brad Anderson (“Next Stop Wonderland”). Julio Fernandez will produce for Spain’s Filmax Entertainment.

(Steven Gaydos, Cathy Dunkley and Dana Harris contributed to this report.)

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