Cannes revels as caution rules

Majors provide hype but indies watch wallets

Last year, Intermedia was touting “Me Again” as a $75 million blockbuster and desperately trying to plug an A-list star into the cast. This year, the project re-emerged at Cannes as a $25 million Brit pic to be directed by Stephen Hopkins.

Intermedia’s turnabout is part of a new pragmatism at Cannes 2004, as high-budget gambles give way to conservative deals on projects with more realistic pricetags.

Last year, independents were the high rollers here.

Intermedia and Dino de Laurentiis shopped dueling “Alexander” epics to indie distribs; Walden Media, which didn’t yet have a U.S. distrib for “Around the World In 80 Days,” flew the cast to the Croisette for a mid-production junket; and Arnold Schwarzenegger posed with robots on a stage in front of the Carlton to promote “T3,” a $170 million film with a half-dozen international partners.

This year, the film market was brisk and businesslike, as sales companies left the hype to Michael Moore, the Hollywood majors, and the movie stars disporting themselves at the Hotel du Cap.

Independent financiers weren’t hawking rights to international tentpoles like “80 Days” and Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” which won’t be out until later this year. They were readjusting their slates, quietly lowering their production budgets and inking strategic partnerships with other independents.

Icon was kicking around an informal buying alliance with Newmarket so the two companies could team in the future to buy English-speaking territories to compete with major specialty labels like Fox Searchlight. Summit, which handles sales on Intermedia’s slate, is co-financing “Me Again.”

International sales outfit Myriad Pictures breezed into Cannes this year and draped its sales banner from the lavish Carlton penthouse that served as its festival headquarters for the last few years.

But behind the scenes, Myriad was quietly re-adjusting its business plan. The company recently closed its London office. Myriad also struck a deal with Pandora, another sales company, to help sell international rights to its Ed Harris pic, “Copying Beethoven.”

The top-selling titles at Cannes still had star-power and big price tags. Lakeshore sold several territories on “Million Dollar Baby,” the boxing drama starring and directed by Clint Eastwood; and Miramax put together a number of foreign sales on “Brothers Grimm,” the Heath Ledger and Matt Damon pic directed by Terry Gilliam. Both pics are budgeted well over $60 million.

But the real action here involved pics on the low end of the sales spectrum: Stephen Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland,” Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver” and the Demi Moore pic “Half Light.”

These are internationally financed co-productions with budgets between $15 and $25 million. All are being financed without a U.S. distributor — a reflection of the growing perception that American pre-buyers pay too little and demand too much control.

Independent sales firms haven’t entirely recovered from the low ebb of 2001, when the Neuer Markt bubble popped and the European pay TV business collapsed. European tax funds are no longer a cash cow for producers; some have evaporated altogether.

But these conditions have forced producers to grow shrewder about packaging international coproductions. “Since the disappearance of almost all of the funds, it’s been a better world for filmmakers with real projects,” says Fernando Sulichin, who’s producing David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Martin Amis’s “London Fields.”

“The market isn’t flooded with films that didn’t deserve to be made and weren’t made for the right reasons,” Sulichin says. “For example, U.K. sales and leaseback requirements are quite rigorous and the right films are getting financed for the right reasons. So we are finding that Cannes is a better place to talk about funding for projects, and we are seeing a real demand for product.”

The greater abundance of product this year included documentaries and foreign-language product that was cheap to produce and cheap to buy, as well as low-budget genre films.

Joan Weidman, production president of bonding outfit IFG, remained bullish about the market. “European and domestic TV is coming back nicely; the advertising money is definitely up. The Euro buyers, where there was such much turbulence, there is now more stability. Call me quietly optimistic.”

(Adam Dawtrey, Cathy Dunkley and Stephen Gaydos contributed to this report.)