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in Filmmaking
on May 25, 2011

“The end of the recession in independent film has occurred,” agent-turned-producer Cassian Elwes proclaimed by Twitter during the Cannes awards ceremonies Sunday night. “Sundance signaled it and Cannes has confirmed it.”

Indeed, most people I talked to at the Cannes Film Market this year confirmed that it was a good one. The German producing and sales company K5 (Get Low, The Visitor) came to Cannes with the fortuitously timed Vehicle 19, an action drama starring a car and Paul Walker, whose Fast 5 is burning up the box-office. “This was the best market of the past year,” Bauer told me. “The pre-sale market is picking up again, the quality of the projects is increasing, and investors are coming back into the market and gaining trust again in the business.”

For Visit Films’ Ryan Kampe, the market this year improved for more specialty-type films too. “There’s a healthier market and appetite for more challenging films, or less commercial films, and that is the run off from the bigger films,” he said. “Because those films are selling out everywhere, I think people are also feeling more comfortable looking at smaller, riskier projects. They are starting to understand how to monetize them in their markets. People are going to the theater again and starting to pay for downloads, TV sales are coming back, and that’s been a sea change from last year.” One of the titles Kampe was selling at Cannes was Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, which will be theatrically released in the States by Oscilloscope this Summer.

The health of the pre-sale market was on the mind of FilmNation’s Glen Basner when I interviewed him about ten days before the festival. At the time he said, “This year a lot of films are coming late to market, including our own, so that’s really a big question mark. [The market] will give us a sense of where we can push, where we need to pull back, where we think we can achieve success, and where we think we may have some issues.” For FilmNation, success can early in the fest when their violent John Hillcoat drama, The Wettest County (which was announced in Berlin), sold domestically to the Weinstein Company. (CAA and Elwes handled this sale.) A raft of foreign sales followed, including, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “Metropolitan in France, Imagen in Latin America, Svensk in Scandanavia, West in Russia, Dreamscape in Korea and Wild Bunch in Italy and Germany.” Among the new projects Basner announced in Cannes was an untitled Oren Peli film, which FilmNation will finance and the director promised to be “scary as hell.” The company closed deals for the title with, according to Variety, “Optimum Releasing in the U.K., the Brit arm of Gaul’s StudioCanal, Village Roadshow in Australia and Swen in Latin America… Russia (Top Film), Scandinavia (Svensk), Middle East (Italia), Portugal (Lusomundo), Greece (Odeon), Switzerland (Ascot Elite) and Iceland (Sam Film).” Lionsgate sold most major territories of its Great Hope Springs, a “marital comedy” starring Meryl Streep, Steve Carell and Tommy Lee Jones. The project reunites Streep with her The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel; Sony picked up the U.S. rights during Cannes.

“The studios only do two things these days,” one agent told me. “Produce blockbusters, and acquire. And because they saw films perform last year like The Social Network, The Fighter and Black Swan, they are looking to pick-up some more of those. The film business has a short memory.” Accordingly, depending on how you want to classify them, high-budget indies or low-budget studio fare (i.e., films in the $10 – $50 million range) with name actors, director and solid marketing elements, were hot tickets. (To the previous list I’d add films like Limitless and Source Code — “elevated” genre pics able to appeal to both popcorn and adult audiences.) Great White Hope obviously falls into this category, as does Rian Johnson’s Looper (pictured above), starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt and sold by FilmNation to Sony and Film District. With Insidious a commercial hit, IM Global did pre-sales on another James Wan picture, the $10 million Spectre, set to star Nicole Kidman, who will also co-produce. But larger-budget titles were on display at Cannes too. Summit reportedly “sold-out” its $100 million disaster pic Pompeii, to be directed by Paul WS Anderson. And Cannes was where Focus Features launched sales on a particularly ambitious picture — an adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, directed by The Matrix‘s Andy and Lana Wachowski and Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer. Warner Brothers will handle domestic distribution on the film, scheduled to begin filming in the fall with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon among the large cast. Capitalizing on the smarts of all involved, the film was presented not with a cocktail party or press announcement but in the form of an on-stage Q&A at the Olympia Cinema between the notoriously publicity-shy Wachowski’s, Tykwer and Focus Features CEO James Schamus.

Other intriguing announcements include U.K. sales outfit Bankside’s cast — Dennis Quaid and Zac Ephron — for an untitled Ramin Bahrani drama produced by Killer Moxie, and the “circling” of transgressive auteur Gaspar Noe around The Golden Suicides, Brett Easton Ellis’s screenplay about the deaths of artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. Chris Hanley, Jordan Gerter and Palmstar are producing the film. Bankside also generated buzz with its market premiere of Bringing up Bobby, the directorial debut of Famke Janssen, who promoted the Milla Jovovitch-starring pic (pictured) through interviews and a Q&A at the American Pavilion. Red Granite International, the new sales arm of producing and financing company Red Granite Pictures, made a splash, not with sales but with an announcement and a party. The company’s recent credits include Jennifer Westfeldt’s forthcoming Friends with Kids, and before Cannes it attracted Nu Image’s Danny Dimbort to its start-up sales arm. At Cannes Red Granite announced it would be doing The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo di Caprio (starring and producing with his Appian Way), and while they weren’t pre-selling it yet, they did fly in Kanye West and Jamie Foxx for what was the festival’s hottest party.

Still, despite the overall good cheer, there were dissenting voices. One sales agent told me about a $10 million arthouse drama he brought to market with a well-known, festival-friendly director and attached star. He needed two pre-sales to trigger the producers’ bank financing, and towards the end of the fest he didn’t think he’d have them. “Buyers are just assuming the producers will find a way to make the film and they’ll see it when it’s done,” he said.

Indeed, in order to attract the best projects, sales agents of all levels may need to, like FilmNation has done with its Oren Peli project, kickstart their projects with in-house financing. Citing companies like Exclusive, IM Global and Sierra/Affinity, WME Global’s Graham Taylor told Screen International’s John Hazelton, “The world has definitely changed in the last 36 months… It’s become much tougher for [companies doing] just straight third-party sales. The advance of a bunch of sales companies with the ability to finance has changed the landscape.”

Even the more boutique sales agents are now raising finance for their projects. Said Visit’s Kampe, “We have always provided MG’s, but the fundamental difference now is that we are in the final round of talks on a partnership that will allow us to provide substantially larger MG’s on ‘marquee’ projects that fit with our current profile and slate.”

While good news abounded overall at the Cannes market this year, the market temperature was not, however, what anyone would describe as euphoric. In fact, “sane” was a word I heard more than once to refer to the condition the sales business has landed in. Both a sales agent and lawyer told me that the business had adjusted itself to lower valuations following the easing of the financial crisis. Newer companies, the lawyer told me, are having an easier time navigating the current landscape because they are less burdened by debt and a model predicated upon higher sales figures. And while Kampe, above, cited some distributors’ increasing confidence in new, digital forms of delivery, most sales agents, including Basner, told me gains from these delivery forms were not fully baked into distributors’ revenue predictions yet.

So in a market that’s saner and healthier, what’s an independent to do? Not surprisingly, the advice from the sales agents and buyers was not any different than it would have been two or ten years ago. Said Bauer, “The key component is to have well developed projects. We believe people should focus more on development, and get projects together that are more commercial, which is what the market needs.”

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