CANNES, France — The movie was on everybody's hot list. Naturally, Miramax's head film buyer, Agnes Mentre, and her partner Matt Brodlie were first in line to see what promised to be an upbeat English-language romantic comedy being offered to eager distributors at the film festival here. The pair quietly joined the rest of the crowd in the packed movie theater, where people were standing in the aisles, hoping -- along with everyone else -- that this would be the one.
After spending days circling and sniffing around for good movies to buy, by Day Three they had nothing but glazed eyes to show for it. And within a few minutes they knew this movie, which they were packed in like sardines to see, was another strikeout.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
El Camino Pictures -- A May 21 Calendar article about the Cannes Film Festival incorrectly reported that the William Morris Agency had recently announced the formation of a company within the agency to produce at least 10 movies in two years, each made for about $1 million. The company, El Camino Pictures, is not a production house within the agency. Rather, it is a financing entity structured by William Morris that will churn out several films with budgets ranging from $5 million to $10 million each.
"We only had to look over at each other, and we knew," said Mentre with a sigh. "This one was so bad, we had to leave." What had begun as a packed screening trickled down to a handful of holdouts by the end, said Brodlie.
Walking out of bad movies has been all too common for many American studio film buyers at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Even films that stirred early interest -- the swashbuckler "Fanfan la Tulipe," starring Penelope Cruz, which opened the festival; the Chinese film "Purple Butterfly"; or the Dennis Hopper-Melanie Griffith comedy "The Night We Called It a Day" -- have met with a tepid response from U.S. film distributors.
That's a major disappointment for companies such as Miramax, Lions Gate, Focus Features, IFC Films and others that rely on what they can pick up from film festivals for as much as half of their total slate. Even if Cannes' clout has been eclipsed somewhat by that of other festivals -- Sundance, Berlin and Toronto, in particular -- Cannes is still a place to find major movies and talent.
Last year, for instance, Focus acquired Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," a movie that would garner three Academy Awards (it also won the Palme d'Or, Cannes' top prize), and United Artists outbid everyone for the documentary "Bowling for Columbine," which also won an Oscar.
And, of course, this year there are a few movies that are sure to come away with an American distributor, such as Lars von Trier's "Dogville," starring Nicole Kidman, which has reportedly sparked spirited interest for U.S. rights; Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"; and David Mackenzie's "Young Adam," starring Ewan McGregor (Lions Gate President Tom Ortenberg has already expressed great interest in the film). But, by and large, exciting new discoveries are in short supply.
"There's nothing really hot that's in the festival," said Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard, whose company is showing director Hector Babenco's "Carandiru," a film that's stirring some interest here. "At least there is nothing obvious out there, although something may come out of left field and turn into a big bidding war."
An underwhelming lineup
Bernard and his competitors come to the festival having carefully studied the lineup of movies available for acquisition. Based on what they read about the movie, or what they hear through the gossip mill, they compile their own lists of "must-sees." Those lists have been short this year.
Lions Gate Films' Ortenberg said he wouldn't be surprised if at least one movie fetched top dollar, but he admitted, "It looks a bit light this year." In a "hot" year, these studios could buy up to four movies in one festival. As recently as 1997, Miramax bought 10 movies at Cannes.
The lack of buzz for movies this year has even dampened the party spirit. Buyers, sellers and distributors are still out partying until dawn, either on yachts or in the local bars and restaurants, but many say they are feeling underwhelmed by the choices.
"Everybody feels a little lost -- like they are missing out on something," said Brodlie. "But I don't think we are missing anything. It's just that nothing is there."
For sellers it has been especially grim. Philippe de Chaisemartin, a seller for the Paris-based company Gaumont, which sold the Luc Besson sci-fi thriller "The Fifth Element" to Sony, says the market is flooded with mediocre movies.
"It's worse than usual," said De Chaisemartin. "Some of the product is good but not extraordinary. The buyers are running around like crazy, and most of the time they don't stay for the whole film."
Hadeel Reda, chief executive of Winchester Films, a London-based financing firm, said it has not had any luck so far with "The Night We Called It a Day," which Winchester represents.
"We always hope to get the U.S. distributors all over it at the first screening, and that just didn't happen," Reda said, noting that if a movie doesn't spark interest within the first days of being shown, it becomes more difficult to sell later on. "I'm trying to be positive, but the market is pretty dead. Some sales companies are just saying it's a bust."