CANNES, FRANCE — Surprise disappearances drive the plot in the illusionist crime drama "Magic Man," but the vanishing act at the film's initial Cannes market screening Wednesday was hardly what its filmmakers wanted to see.
Occupying the very first screening slot in the Marche, as the sprawling market component of the Cannes Film Festival is known, "Magic Man" had come to the south of France looking for distributors from around the world.
But just 10 minutes into the "Magic Man" screening, the buyers from Japan, Germany and Russia headed for the exits. From the several dozen shoppers in seats when the lights went down, only five were left when they came back up.
"It was really uncomfortable to see that happen," said the film's star, Estelle Raskin, who was sitting in the theater during the exodus. Raskin's father, Gregory, an Ohio wireless communications executive, bankrolled the $3-million crime story. "But the people who are selling the movie said that happens all the time -- the buyers leave to go see something else."
Putting movies up for sale is not always a pretty business, and at this year's Cannes it has been particularly unsightly for B movies, films like "Magic Man" that have neither big stars nor hefty budgets to entice buyers.
Sales have been slumping for all kinds of movies, and the same market forces that are impairing highbrow art films are taking an equal -- if not greater toll -- on the crime dramas, erotic thrillers and horror titles looking for a home in the Cannes market, films such as "Cyrus: Mind of a Serial Killer" and "Stripped Naked."
Only a few of the B movies with dreams of a theatrical release will be so lucky. The majority will premiere on DVD or pay or free television. Many other movies -- there are 4,500 films in various stages of production in the Cannes market, with 900 completed movies screening -- will not land any meaningful distribution at all.
" 'Magic Man' is a good independent film that we will sell all around the world for television and DVD," said Mark Lester, a veteran director ("Commando," "Firestarter") and president of the sales agency American World Pictures. "But unless you have a major star or budget going for you, it's hard to get a theatrical distributor."
Not that long ago, B movies could reliably turn out a steady if unspectacular profit. The genre created its own stars -- people like Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Kevin Sorbo, Jean-Claude Van Damme, David Carradine and any of the lesser Baldwin brothers -- who would guarantee almost instant sales in foreign territories.
But a deluge of low-budget productions cluttered the marketplace: Billy Zane, who plays a mysterious conjurer in "Magic Man," is in 15 movies in this year's market.
At the same time, the global recession, spiraling piracy and a stronger foreign interest in local-language productions has crimped foreign returns.
That has forced the makers and distributors of B movies to come up with three strategies: hold budgets down, look for new distribution outlets such as video-on-demand cable channels and find a way to make their movies stand out.
"Horror has become extremely difficult to sell -- everyone with an HD camera is out there shooting one, so you have to have a hook," said Jamie Thompson, the president of Quantum Releasing. "What it comes down to for a lot of buyers is shock value."
So Quantum came to Cannes with as much graphic gore as possible stuffed into its titles, which include "Torture Room," "30 Days to Die" and "Run! Bitch Run!" "It's not what you really want to be known for," Thompson said of the last title, "but it's already sold to Germany, Australia, Japan and Scandinavia."
Los Angeles producer and distributor the Asylum's B-movie strategy is to focus on so-called "mockbusters," cleverly titled knock-offs that seek to attract audiences through confusion and familiarity. Asylum's forthcoming productions include "Robin Hood" ("Timed to the release of Ridley Scott's epic adventure," a sales brochure says), "The Adventures of Sinbad" ("Timed to the release of Walt Disney's 'Prince of Persia' ") and "Transmorphers: Fall of Man."
Among those B-movie makers taking a slightly higher road, Los Angeles' CineTel Films shot the $6-million special effects-laden fantasy "Icarus" in Canada, taking advantage of the currency exchange rates and government rebates. "It's simple math," said CineTel President Paul Hertzberg. "You better make the movies for less than what they are selling for."
That might prove difficult for "Magic Man."
Executive producer Raskin came to the United States from Russia 20 years ago and now runs a Solon, Ohio wireless company.
"I definitely want to sell the movie, but today it's very hard for someone to want to do it theatrically," he said. "It's not an Oscar-nominated movie, but it's not the worst movie in the world."
His daughter wasn't originally going to star opposite Zane, but Estelle Raskin stepped in when Leelee Sobieski passed on the role of a woman drawn to Zane's character.
Now looking for an agent in Los Angeles, Raskin, who is also a singer and composer, says she's proud of her work in "Magic Man." "It's an opportunity," she said, "and life doesn't always wait for you to be ready. You have to jump in."