Pre-sales preempt mart woes

Upcoming pix promising, but pickups peter out

This article was corrected on June 23, 2003.

It’s too soon to proclaim the recovery of the global indie marketplace from its near-death experiences of the past two years.

But there’s no doubt that the pulse of the pre-sales biz was beating more strongly at this edition of the Cannes bazaar, notably in previously flatlining territories such as Spain, Italy and Germany.

“I think distributors looked at their slates for the second half of next year and said, ‘Oh my God, we need films,’ ” says Myriad topper Kirk D’Amico.

While the fest itself failed to deliver much to excite buyers, the market offered up a couple of dozen plausible projects with stars, medium-to-big budgets and lots of hoopla from sales companies and producers.

“In terms of quality and quantity, this is the strongest market for pre-sales that I’ve seen in the last two years,” testifies Dan Griffiths, senior VP of L.A.-based Trans-Pacific Media, which reps distribs in 12 markets.

“There is a lot of optimism in the air,” confirms Summit Entertainment’s Patrick Wachsberger, who was busy closing deals for “The Jacket” toplining Mark Wahlberg, and inviting offers for the John Travolta starrer “The Punisher” (but not signing, as two U.S. majors were circling the pic for all or some foreign territories).

Adds Wachsberger: “People really believe now that we will be out of a tunnel within the next 18 months.”

Even so, many distribs who came back to the table are still being cautious and ultra-selective.

They’ll step up to the plate for big-budget movies but they’re balking at those that are packaged with titles they don’t want.

The same is true in the arthouse arena.

“The days of package deals are over. Buyers are only prepared to buy the one or two films they really want,” says Fortissimo co-chairman Michael Werner, who reported brisk business on his upscale slate including “Japanese Story” and “Camp.”

Apart from the rival “Alexander the Great” movies, hot pre-buy prospects included “Monkeyface,” starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; the Initial package including “The Aviator,” “An Unfinished Life” and “The Accidental Husband”; Sandra Bullock-Ralph Fiennes vehicle “Vapor”; “Whore” with Denise Richards and Darryl Hannah; and Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.”

Also generating strong interest were “The Prince and the Freshman,” helmed by Martha Coolidge and starring Julia Stiles; the Reese Witherspoon headliner “Vanity Fair”; “World of Tomorrow,” a sci-fier with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law; Pierce Brosnan starrer “Matador”; and “Pride and Prejudice: The Bollywood Musical,” director Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to “Bend It Like Beckham.”

Kevin Costner headliner “Upside of Anger,” Annette Bening starrer “Being Julia” and “Lazarus Child” with Andy Garcia also were in demand.

For the first time in a couple of years, sellers were hard-pressed to name any major territories where they were still experiencing serious problems.

One company privately admitted to getting 10% out of Germany on three separate deals in recent weeks, while others noted that such recently awkward countries as Spain and Italy were proving surprisingly tractable.

The global bonanza of “Lord of the Rings” is playing its part in driving big-budget pre-sales.

Taewon, which has Peter Jackson’s trilogy in Korea, picked up “The Mask 2” from New Line. In France, “Rings” distrib Metropolitan was the most active buyer.

The SARS epidemic in Asia resulted in numerous no-shows from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

But some savvy sellers, like Pony Canyon’s Shinji Sakoda and Cinema Service’s Jennifer Muhn, got around that by calling buyers at their home offices. Muhn closed a deal for three films with Taiwan’s Mata by phone.

If there was one remaining pocket of misery, it was among U.S. buyers prospecting for gems in the competition and its sidebars.

“It’s the worst acquisitions market I’ve ever seen,” says one North American buyer. “Disastrous,” echoes another.

The few fest entries to stir buyer interest included Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” which sold to multiple markets, David Mackenzie’s “Young Adam” and Roger Michell’s “The Mother.”

(Cathy Dunkley, John Hopewell and Alison James contributed to this report.)

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