Americans Need Balls, Indies Need Buyers as Chilly Cannes Winds Down

Where are the big spenders this year at Cannes? After a 2007 buying spree that topped out with Universal snagging We Own the Night for a whopping $11.5 million, only one distributor has made any considerable investment in the current crop of selections — IFC Films, which made news Wednesday by acquiring the acclaimed Irish drama Hunger, its seventh buy in as many days. And even its other deals — an international mash-up including A Christmas Tale (France), Chaser (S. Korea) and the American indie The Pleasure of Being Robbed — are slated for minimal theatrical play as they funnel into IFC's day-and-date on-demand circuit.

Meanwhile, bigger American titles — particularly Che, Two Lovers and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's mindfuck directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (pictured) — remain on the market after less-than-rapturous response from critics and industry alike. What gives?

In the case of Kaufman's film, which premieres today at the festival, an early buyers screening last weekend yielded little but scratched heads and closed wallets, though with a cast top-lined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, most observers presume a deal is imminent. The same goes for Steven Soderbergh's even more challenging Benicio Del Toro-starrer Che — a 268-minute Spanish-language epic you may have heard left more than a few people skeptical of its commercial viability.

But even the Joaquin Phoenix/Gwyneth Paltrow film Two Lovers, easily the most mainstream, best-reviewed and least-expensive (with its $12 million budget) of the three, has drawn few serious inquiries more than three days after its premiere. Buyers are increasingly content to wait for the right price (it's easier when the troubled likes of the Weinstein Company and ThinkFilm can't afford to drive up costs); they're also determined to outlast the sluggish theatrical marketplace by accruing fewer titles on their release calendars. (See Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, which expensively nabbed Choke and Hamlet 2, respectively, out of Sundance and haven't bought since.)

The skittishness is conspicuously rubbing off on sellers now as well — especially Europeans, as The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Goldstein and Steven Zeitchik discovered Wednesday:


European sellers are not necessarily sympathetic to American fears over less easily marketable product. "The Americans are lazy, they're arrogant and too scared to do any deals," said one European sales exec. "I tell them: get some balls — your companies are all going down the toilet, maybe now's the time to get some films before it all collapses." ...
[T]he word is new strategies are needed to jump-start the market. Films will need be approaching completion before they are presented to buyers. "Buyers perceive that it's a buyers' market and they don't have to buy off footage; they can wait for the whole film," [William Morris Independent's] Cassian Elwes said.

That scenario likely applies to the $61 million Che, which even with Soderbergh at the helm likely faces months of cutting and revision before a distributor would take it on. Then there's the case of Tyson, the Mike Tyson documentary over which director James Toback was heard referring to his "prospective distributor" Sony Pictures Classics — even as the company was credited only with a "lowball," then "modest six-figure bid" and co-president Michael Barker was quoted elsewhere as saying, "I'm trying to find a year when we left without buying a film. ... If we ever did it was a long time ago. There are no gems in the market." Ouch! Oh well — there's always Toronto.