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It's not all play and no work

Trailing film producer Jeremy Thomas reveals a savvy Cannes veteran whose search for a distributor is informed by a past disappointment.

May 23, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Cannes, France — Cannes, France

At first glance, Jeremy Thomas could be any casually dressed British tourist -- moist, somewhat pink skin glistening under yellow-tinted eyeglasses and a mop of curly gray hair -- out for a stroll in the Mediterranean sun.

Spend a few hours with him as he makes his way around town, though, and two things become clear: Cannes is no holiday for a movie producer like Thomas. And this guy really knows his way around.

Where to go for a breakfast meeting? Head to the terrace at the Carlton Inter-Continental Hotel. Want to hang out with die-hard art-house fans and festival directors? Try the bar at the Grand Hotel. In search of Americans? That would be the Majestic Hotel bar, daytime and early evening.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
"Young Adam" cost -- An article in Friday's Calendar section incorrectly stated that the film "Young Adam" cost $1 million to make; the correct amount is $7 million.

"You have to know that people cruise from bar to bar looking for other people," Thomas says. In his 30 years of working the Cannes Film Festival, the producer has gained more than an appreciation of human behavior; most notably, it was in Cannes that he made a career-changing connection with Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.

Their collaboration, Thomas says, goes back to 1983, when the director called him after they met in Cannes and said, "I want to make a film in China." That film turned out to be Bertolucci's sweeping, Oscar-winning drama "The Last Emperor." They've gone on to make "The Sheltering Sky," "Stealing Beauty" and, most recently, "The Dreamers," which Fox Searchlight will distribute in the fall.

But Thomas, 53, cannot live by Bertolucci alone.

This year he is here trying to sell "Young Adam," a Scottish film starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, directed by newcomer David Mackenzie.

Thomas, a London-based producer, founder of the Recorded Picture Co. and son of film director Ralph Thomas, has shown a knack for tapping up-and-coming directors: He produced Stephen Frears' "The Hit" (1984), Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast" (2000) and "The Cup" (1999) from Tibetan director (and monk) Khyentse Norbu.

On this particular day at Cannes, Thomas seems ecstatic.

"Young Adam," which premiered Saturday, appeared to get a good critical reception. And the day after, a three-column color photograph of McGregor and co-star Emily Mortimer dominated the front page of the Times of London, followed inside with a positive review.

"This paper is read by the queen and Tony Blair for breakfast every morning," gloats Thomas, grabbing the paper and smacking the photograph with the back of his hand. "I mean, I come here with my really small movie. I get us on BBC news, CNN and all the rest, and for three hours that day, I was on the level with 'The Matrix.' It's absurd."

So far, "Young Adam" and Lars von Trier's three-hour drama "Dogville" have garnered much of the attention at the festival. It remains to be seen how either film will play out in the U.S. "Young Adam," in particular, may have a hard time with the ratings board, considering it's full of erotic sex scenes, complete with a frontal nude shot of McGregor.

Still, Thomas has been meeting with several U.S. distributors, hoping to get a good price for his $1-million film. But he's looking for more than money.

He wants to see a road map of how they would release the film. How many other movies do they have coming out at the same time? How much money would they invest in marketing and publicity? In which key markets would it play?

"You sort of hope to look them in the eye and hope that they really do like your film and are not just buying it for the stars in it," he says.

Finding a distributor is no guarantee of ultimate success, he notes, pointing out his disappointment over the fate of "Rabbit-Proof Fence," an Australian drama directed by Phillip Noyce that was picked up by Miramax and released in late 2002. Despite some good critical notices, the film was passed over at the box office and at awards time.

Besides finding buyers for "Young Adam," Thomas must start raising money for Bertolucci's next project: a $40-million film set during the Renaissance. To help him sell the movie, Thomas has brought a thick "pitch book" filled with color photographs and paintings of the story for prospective buyers.

"There are civilians and non-civilians in this business," he says, inhaling deeply on a Marlboro Light. "I don't like to be involved with civilians because they don't understand the risks. This industry is a combination of business, art and gambling."

In his ocean-view suite at the Carlton, he receives a call from "Bernardo." He fills the director in on the festival: who's there, what's hot, what people are saying. Overall, he seems to miss the outrageousness of years gone by -- being locked away in a villa with fellow festival jurors in '87, watching vulgar and colorful demonstrations shut down the Croisette, the city's main artery, in '84. And then there's the deal-making that brings him here, year after year.

"Every year, it's a challenge," he says. "Every year, it changes. It's always been a struggle to find financing for original movies."

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