Welcome to the mad circus of the Cannes market

Welcome to the mad circus of the Cannes market
Phil Robertson was in Cannes to preach, saying: "That's why I'm here in Cannes, to remind people that if you forget God you run into a heap of trouble." He was also there to sell a movie. (Stephanie Cornfield/For The Time)

Dressed in his signature camouflage pants and headband, Phil ‎Robertson, of "Duck Dynasty" fame, stood on the deck of a Riviera yacht here and poked at his dessert aux fraise with a tiny fork.

"It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their ‎chains," said Robertson, the star of the A&E reality series about a duck-hunting supply company, as he invoked Patrick Henry. "That's why I'm here in Cannes, to remind people that if you forget God you run into a heap of trouble, dude."


Robertson wasn't just here to preach, though — he was here to sell a movie, offering his usual case for guns and God in a very different environment.

Just steps away from the Cannes Film Festival and its glitzy premieres lies another realm: the Marche, or market. Run as a sort of parallel universe to the festival, it is where anyone with a dream —  or at least a producer and sales agent who paid their accreditation fees — can come to hawk their wares. This is the working-man's side of Cannes, at times focusing on the brass tacks of commerce, at other times offering Hollywood's version of vaporware.

Robertson was on the deck of a yacht —a glittery green affair called the "Sea Owl" owned by conservative activist and magnate Robert Mercer — peddling the documentary "Torchbearer" to reporters and distributors. Produced by David Bossie, head of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, Stephen K. Bannon's documentary features Robertson arguing that Darwinism and atheism are responsible for atrocities throughout ‎the ages,

For 12 days every May, the luminaries of French and international cinema converge on this blinged-out town in southern France. They swan across paparazzi-lined red carpets, unveil auteur works to tuxedoed audiences at premieres for so-called "official selections" and discreetly sip Moet while chitchatting at seaside cocktail parties. The Duck Commander would not seem to be a part of these plans.

Yet the market is a different world. All around town, industry players woo film buyers and the media, often with the help of famous faces.‎ They rent out apartments along the town's main Boulevard de la Croisette, often hanging large banners over terrace railings. They occupy booths ‎in a trade-show space. They rent out commercial movie theaters not affiliated with the official and glamorous Palais des Festivals. And they set up what amount to portable ‎offices in hotel bars, outdoor restaurants and, if they know the right people, docked yachts.

In talking up their projects, these players hope to win financing, lucrative foreign-territory sales and the most elusive currency of all: attention.

Some of the activity is of the more upscale Hollywood sort — excitement this past week centered on "The Irishman," a long-gestating Martin Scorsese crime ‎drama whose global rights were bought by the studio STX for as much as $50 million. But a lot of the action is over movies far less likely to reach the Oscar podium — pictures with titles such as "Kung Food" and "Monkey Twins," or nonfiction movies featuring well-known personalities.

This year, the mix of such titles was as disparate as it's been in some time. The emergence of film capital in places such as China — coupled with a widespread belief that movies are an increasingly affordable way to further a cause — has given the market a different energy. And though sellers grumbled about a slow start, the range of projects was entertainingly wide; in very few places would people of such different stripes would come together for a common purpose.

Barely a half-mile from Robertson's pitch, several New Zealand filmmakers had joined with the French economic theorist Thomas Piketty, author of the dense treatise "Capital in the 21st Century." In a sparsely furnished apartment just across the street from a row of expensive beach restaurants, they talked enthusiastically about why "Capital in the 21st Century" — the movie edition — could set the world afire.

"My goal has been to reach many people beyond academics and economists," Piketty said. "To me, this movie is an opportunity to reach out to different kinds of audiences — to people who didn't read the book, or bought the book and admit they didn't read past the first chapter.‎"

Piketty had not been seeking to make a film. But he was persuaded by Matthew Metcalfe, an independent-film producer based in New Zealand, that this was a gamble worth taking, Metcalfe and the director, a director named Justin Pemberton, had been struck by both the ideas and the potential to visualize it, in part by collecting clips from the likes of Fred Flintstone and "The Simpsons'" Montgomery Burns. Metcalfe and Pemberton said they have begun financing the movie with a variety of undisclosed government and private sources, and were in Cannes to meet distributors, whose rights fees would further fund their efforts.

The day after the Piketty pitch, a Chinese production company was touting an "unofficial" sequel to the 1982 Oscar winner "Chariots of Fire," titled "The Last Race." "Race" tells the story of Scottish athlete Eric Liddell's post-Olympic life as a Christian missionary in China. Liddell died in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

"Many people have a very good memory of the famous movie 'Chariots of Fire,' " said the director, Stephen Shin, speaking to the media and a smattering of distributors at an outdoor restaurant. "This story shows the significance of getting together around the world, especially in this time. We have to share love and understanding."

British actor Joseph Fiennes has been recruited to play Liddell.  "We explore China, we explore Eric, we explore what it was like for foreigners at the time and what it was like for Chinese under horrendous occupation of the Japanese," he said, offering a description agreeable to his employers. Fiennes and the rest of the cast spoke a little longer then posed for photo ops for the Chinese and international journalists.


"Last Race" has already been completed. Unmade movies, on the other hand, can face a rockier road.

One day during the festival, singer Dionne Warwick turned out to a small press conference in the back room one day early in this year's festival to announce news of, and attract sales interest for, a biopic about the early years of her career. At the event, the former Destiny's Child singer LeToya Luckett was announced to play the young singer, while Lady Gaga would star as Warwick's rival, Cilla Black.

The movie was coming from a little-known company called AMBI Pictures, which is the collaboration of an Italian producer Andrea Iervolino and Monika Bacardi, heiress to the spirits fortune. Warwick was in fine form, taking selfies and chatting with people in the room. "A lot of people think they know Dionne Warwick," the singer said. "And very few people know Dionne Warwick."

It turned out one of its stars didn't know about this movie. Shortly after the press conference, Gaga's representatives released a statement saying she had not committed to the project and in fact never heard of it.

Indeed, much of the market is about a kind of film-producer-wish-fulfillment as much as a reflection of reality. Many announced projects that may never get made, largely because their pitches fail to shake enough money loose from would-be distributors. A Justin Timberlake movie in which he would play the late record executive Neil Bogart, for instance, was announced to great fanfare three years ago but remains unmade.  (Timberlake, incidentally, was at the festival this year too, performing with Anna Kendrick to promote their animated holiday movie "Trolls.")


The atmosphere of the market can be one of beautiful chaos or maddening schizophrenia, depending on your point of view. A place where many people have come for action movies like "Showdown in Manila" can fit uneasily with a climate devoted to the purity of cinema.

"There's a whole other Cannes that you don't really see or know about when you're in the middle of all the cinema," said ‎Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian auteur who won the Palme d'Or in 2007 and had an acclaimed film in competition this year. "It's a very strange thing to realize, as if there are two events that have nothing to do with each other."

Back on the deck of the yacht, Robertson and Bossie were equally unaware of the other side. They were mingling with guests, some of whom were affiliated with the film.  Among them was Zach Dasher, Robertson's nephew and the former Tea Party congressional candidate, who had written the "Torchbearer" script.

"It's a little surreal to see Phil here in Cannes — all the beautiful people and the big hair guy in camouflage," Dasher said.

"We're a little out of our element," Robertson chimed in, as he looked out at the epic expanse of the Mediterranean and drew an enti-evolutionary inference.  "We live life at a slower pace where I'm from."

Bossie, meanwhile, was staying focused on the business.

"We got a Polish deal just today at our market screening," he said. "It was totally worth it to come here."