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Cannes’ cloudy outlook

The yachts will still cruise in, but there won’t be as many. The parties will continue well into the night, yet not with the same excesses. And while most American distributors will still come to the French Riviera, some others won’t.

Given all that’s gone wrong in the economy, it’s not surprising that this year’s Cannes Film Festival will be more restrained than in recent years. And that could present a problem for independent filmmakers and their financial backers hoping to score a big sales payday or even land a theatrical distribution deal.

The festival, which runs May 13 to 24, is best known for its starry, black-tie premieres and creatively ambitious competition films -- which this year includes Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” -- but the heart of Cannes is its film market, where some 3,000 features come looking for global distribution offers.

Many of the movies in the Cannes market this year are low-budget exploitation titles, but a fair number are filled with recognizable stars like Hilary Swank and established directors such as Peter Weir. A handful of the several dozen movies in Cannes’ main showcases also are looking for American distributors, including the late Heath Ledger’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Rachel Weisz in “Agora” and director Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” which features soccer superstar Eric Cantona.

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Even though domestic box-office admissions are soaring, the global movie business -- particularly overseas DVD and television sales -- is slumping. International distributors can’t get financing to buy movies, piracy is cutting into overseas ticket sales, foreign currencies are falling in value and key international territories have essentially discontinued acquiring American films.

“Japan has stopped buying English-language movies,” says Jere Hausfater, the chief executive of the international sales company Essential Entertainment, which is headed to Cannes to sell the comedy “Middle Men,” starring Luke Wilson and James Caan. “The indigenous Japanese movies are continuing to dominate the box office.”

On top of everything else, the supply and demand equation has been out of whack; there were more movies (thanks to the surge of production investment from private investors such as hedge funds) aimed at fewer distributors (with former buyers like Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures closing up shop), an imbalance that swung to the buyers’ advantage.

“There was a glut of product,” says Hal Sadoff, a sales agent at International Creative Management. “And either buyers paid too much for the movies and got burned or a lot of movies had to sit on the sidelines and then didn’t get bought.”

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Sadoff believes that with private equity drying up (he estimates independent productions are down about 50% in the last six months) and new distributors coming on the scene (upstarts include Oscilloscope Pictures and Peace Arch Entertainment), the playing field is slowly returning to level.

All the same, a look at some of last year’s Cannes sales shows how hard it was for even the festival’s highest-profile titles to make a splash at the domestic box office. “Two Lovers” grossed less than $3 million for Magnolia, “Hunger” barely passed $125,000 for IFC Films and Sony Pictures Classics saw its Charlie Kaufman purchase, “Synecdoche, New York,” squeak past $3 million.

Consequently, the amount distributors lay out for movies may continue to shrink. Although the headline-making deals can total in the tens of millions of dollars, far more film festival transactions are sealed for a fraction of that amount -- sometimes just tens of thousands of dollars.

And some distributors will give Cannes films only limited theatrical releases, banking instead on revenues from video-on-demand cable TV channels and Internet streaming. Although that low-cost distribution formula may work well for video-on-demand leaders such as IFC Films and the nonfiction website Snag Films, it doesn’t necessarily put more than a handful of dollars in the pockets of the filmmakers and their backers, who may be out multiple millions of dollars.

Still, Arianna Bocco, IFC’s vice president for acquisitions and productions, is confident that the Cannes buyers will pull out their checkbooks if a movie delivers. “The movies that are really good, people will fight over,” Bocco says. “People need product. We need to keep the pipeline going.”

John Sloss, who will be in Cannes selling “Dr. Parnassus,” “Agora” and the Sundance film “Precious” to distributors, says even though Paramount and Warner Bros. closed their specialty film divisions, it doesn’t mean the audience for highbrow films has gone away.

“There are problems at the parent companies,” Sloss says, “but there aren’t problems with people wanting to see independent films.”

Producer Guy East’s Exclusive Media Group will head to Cannes with several films in the market looking for distribution, including director Weir’s “The Way Back” (with Colin Farrell) and “Invasion of Privacy,” which stars Swank.

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East believes that with so much uncertainty in the market, buyers and audiences will gravitate toward quality stories told by talented filmmakers.

“What we try to focus on, above all, is the screenplay. We spend many millions of dollars on our screenplay development, which is unusual for an independent,” East says. Those scripts, in turn, attract A-list talent.

“And those are the kind of movies that we think we will be able to sell,” East says. “It all comes back to quality.”

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john.horn@latimes.com

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Word this weekend

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There’s no question “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” will enjoy a colossal opening this weekend. But how big is big? The last film in the comic book series, 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” opened with weekend ticket sales of $102.8 million. The critical reaction for Hugh Jackman’s mutant spinoff has been mixed, and it’s unclear how much 20th Century Fox’s “Wolverine” will be hurt by the film’s heavily downloaded pirated version or by swine flu fears, which could keep some potential ticket buyers away from public venues such as theaters. A year ago this week, Marvel Studios and Paramount’s “Iron Man” premiered with $102.1 million. That film had better buzz, but “X-Men” has franchise history in its favor. Look for “Wolverine” to gross $95 million or more. Far behind will be the opening of Matthew McConaughey’s “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” A year ago, “Made of Honor” grossed $14.8 million opposite “Iron Man,” so expect New Line’s “Ghosts” to do slightly better than that -- maybe $17 million or so.

-- John Horn


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