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Courting the Cash at Cannes

Film festival is a backdrop to deals, reached with the help of agents, that put U.S. movies in theaters from Duesseldorf to Delhi.


CANNES, France — Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson, who head the independent film finance packaging division of the William Morris Agency, have two operating speeds: turbo and light-speed. Turbo means that a meeting lasts 20 minutes, while light-speed suggests that business can be transacted in less than five.

There is also the momentary glad-handing that accompanies numerous canters up and down the Croisette, between the Morris suites at the Palais Miramar hotel and the marina, where a number of European investors are ensconced in yachts that reportedly rent for more than $25,000 a week.

"The big difference is we walk in Cannes and we drive in Los Angeles," Ronson, a petite figure in her late 30s, says as she rushes out of a meeting at the Majestic hotel, her third in an hour.

The 54th Cannes Film Festival will conclude Sunday after a ceremony honoring a clutch of new films. But the festival's raison d'etre is to serve as the world's premier film bazaar, where peddlers of the latest Iranian cinema verite brush shoulders with famous American producers such as Harvey Weinstein.

This is an odd time in the global film business. American studios, battered by rising costs and shrinking profits, are unusually skittish. To minimize risk, they are increasingly co-financing films with foreign companies or pre-selling distribution rights abroad.

Conversely, European media conglomerates, hungry for product, are snapping up U.S. film rights at exorbitant prices. They are also slowly moving into production. It's an arrangement that allows American producers autonomy over their product and the Europeans access to studio-quality films. Some Europeans are even starting funds to produce their own English-language films.

To make any of this work, you need stars--big, American-size celebrities. As Elwes is fond of saying, "Movie stars are the currency," and so William Morris, one of Hollywood's leading talent agencies, is a gatekeeper to the stars.

Navigating the packed Croisette--the beachfront promenade that is the festival's main thoroughfare--with Elwes and Ronson is a brief tutorial in international film financing, an inside view on the spiky dance between buyers and sellers that puts American movies in theaters from Duesseldorf to Delhi. Elwes and Ronson take a cut of every deal they do, often a negotiable percentage of the film's budget. In this year's production frenzy leading up to the Writers Guild agreement, they put together 11 films, with budgets ranging from $3.5 million to $30 million. They have also begun to earn fees by setting up producers with European backers, in a sense acting as gatekeepers to the money.

Unlike the Sundance Film Festival each winter in Utah, which resonates with the broken hopes of struggling filmmakers, Cannes smells of money--lots of it--of deals to be made and luxurious meals and hotels, all on the company expense account.

The pair pass the Carlton hotel, which first achieved international fame as the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief." Its cream-colored beauty is almost completely obscured by film billboards and banners.

Elwes, a small, redheaded 42-year-old Briton in a faded black Diesel T-shirt and jeans, points out his handiwork. He waves to Billy Bob Thornton, who's in the middle of a photo shoot on the veranda. Elwes and Ronson arranged financing for Thornton's "Behind the Sun." From windows of the hotel's third floor hang banners of Thornton, Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes, all in films for which the William Morris duo helped secure the financing.

Scanning the billboards on the front lawn, Elwes and Ronson tick off Morris clients in every film advertised, from "Moulin Rouge" to "Planet of the Apes." When he comes to the last one, however--"Lara Croft Tomb Raider," featuring Angelina Jolie--he can't come up with a single William Morris connection.

"I don't think we have anyone involved with that," Elwes says, sighing. "That would have been a clean sweep."

When in Cannes, Elwes gives up on real sleep for the duration of the festival, which began May 9. "I usually sleep for about four hours. I feel that Cannes is one long day with a few small naps," he says.

Elwes has been coming to Cannes for more than 20 years, first as a child, with his stepfather, Elliott Kastner, the producer of more than 70 films including "Harper" and "The Long Goodbye."

This is the 14th Cannes festival for Ronson, who brought along her parents and her 2-year-old daughter, Anabella. They are all staying in an apartment off the Croisette.

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