In its 63rd year, the Cannes Film Festival is marked by the classic images that give it the glitz and glamour it is known for all around the world - the impossibly long staircase bathed in a cascading carpet the color of cherry berry Bazooka gum, palm trees swaying in the wind against the backdrop of blue ocean waves hitting the sand, and the series of blinding flashes of light - usually the result of a bejeweled star's clavicular showcase of jewels catching the last of the sun, or a photographer's efforts to capture every movement of the stars dressed in black tie attire, as though in an effort to create a flip book.
But even more important than this annual celebration of moviemaking is the fact that the Cannes Film Festival is also an international movie market. What this means is that while you are going about the business of your everyday life, producers, directors, distributors, sales agents, and film professionals from around the globe are wheeling and dealing, making promises of what movies to buy and what movies to make for their respective countries - movies that will, inevitably, end up as the primary focus of your Saturday night date, the DVD you receive for your birthday, and the remote click your dexterous thumbs will summon from your La-Z-Boy at the last minute on a Tuesday night two years from now.
But this kind of entertainment often comes at a hefty price tag, even if you're not James Cameron (most recently of Avatar fame), if you're not shooting on film (far more costly than shooting in high-definition), or you don't have any stars (actors that came with name recognition and a built-in fan base). Modest budgets for the first feature film of a film school graduate cost as much and often far more than the house you own.
"We're looking at finding partners on projects," says Katie Holly, a producer who, along with her partner, Kieron J. Walsh, runs the Dublin based production company, Blinder Films. One Hundred Mornings, her first feature production, had its world premier at this year's Slamdance Film Festival, where it was awarded a Special Jury Prize. Katie is also currently in post-production on Ton Hall's Sensation as well as Finola Geraghty's Come on Eileen, and gathering funding for a psychological horror film, Citadel.
"If there's a particular project that starts in Ireland and then we find a co-producer and a film fund in Germany, for example, who wants to work with us on that project, then the (two) funds would cooperate and try to work together on a German project. It's this kind of reciprocal arrangement which has worked very well for Irish films. We're a very small market, we don't have great distribution, and there isn't a large appetite for Irish films in Ireland, and they're never going to make their money back just in their own market, so you do need to find partners to team up with elsewhere," she spells out candidly.
This age-old playground metaphor for teaming up with those who might be different from you but share the same passion (in childhood, perhaps the see-saw; in filmmaking, the love of the art of film and the power it has to move an audience), is being played out in the Cannes market in small but mighty films that don't yet have a distributor. (This means it's not yet determined you will ever get to see the film in the second place, if the first place is creating the film.)
John Doyle directed Horton Foote's Main Street, which is being shown in this year's market in an attempt to find a buyer. Main Street tells the story of a stranger (Colin Firth) who arrives in the faded, crumbling glory of Durham, North Carolina, with a controversial plan to revive the town and bring it make to the success level of its tobacco producing days. Orlando Bloom, in a humbling, mustached empathetic role as a cop who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Andrew McCarthy, and Amber Tamblyn all play characters whose lives intersect as they are forced to make decisions about how they want to move forward with their lives.
As Main Street tells us and this year's film market at Cannes clearly demonstrates, old models are not working. Joana Vicente, Executive Director of the International Filmmaker Project (IFP), dining on a sandwich and cappuccino at the Majestic Hotel in the midst of a slew of midday meetings, discusses her partnership with Filmmaker Magazine and her desire to extend the reach of the IFP internationally.
She also triumphs the creation of Festival Genius as a product of the film world becoming more saturated with festivals and the dependency of independent filmmakers to be able to show their work, develop a following, and a career from the exhibition of their work at festivals. "Festival Genius is a great website that enables directors and filmmakers to get information from their audience. The audience rates the films as they go, so the filmmaker can get feedback and understand what is the demographic of his or her audience. It's a wonderful tool for filmmakers, and at the same time it's supporting film festivals and audience building."
Joana's husband Jason Kliot, producer of such projects as Redacted (2007), Broken English (2007), and the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room (2005), all projects he did with Joana and their company Open City Films, joins the conversation and shares some thoughts on what the future might hold. "What I'm hearing from people is that the middle has completely dropped out, and very small films are not getting sold, so the market is really sticking with pretty large vehicles that have stars in them and would probably get sold anyway, with or without a market."
Jason continues: "So I think the relevance of the market as an actual sales tool is probably diminishing. The discovery aspect of things has diminished a little, not for the public, but for the market places because there seem to be very few people willing to take a risk. Sales are steadier, but it's definitely a different international marketplace. You go to the booth and talk to people and they'll say, 'We're not where we were.'"
Nicolas Avruj, who helms the Argentinean production company Campo Cine and is a producer on Diego Lerman's La Mirada Invisible (The Invisible Eye), screening in the Director's Fortnight competition in Cannes, speaks of the difficulty in uniting the Americas to work together on projects. "Co-productions (with other countries) are good because there are more chances for the films to be seen. In a business like this you make a lot of money with one film, and then with another film you don't make any money. Even if you don't, it's like food for your soul, and I think that in the long term that's what's going to work for humanity."
"We don't have to keep going down the same path," Nicolas says, with the wisdom of a few successes under his belt, the foresight to create more, and the enthusiasm of youth.
"We need a model that's sustainable," Joana elaborates, not unlike the rallying cry heard behind the issues of safe food production for a burgeoning world population. "Investors need to understand how they're going to get their money back."
No one cares until there is money involved. And there's no art without commerce. (Clearly, if the American Pavilion's entry fee of $15 USD to an outsider not on the "list" is any indication - and it's worth noting most of the other countries holding up a tent on the Croisette are welcoming to all sans entry fee.) "Video on demand (VOD) is the only future of independent film," chimes in Jason clearly, as he debates whether or not to finish off his wife's club sandwich or wait to order one at his next meeting.
"We are at this incredibly critical juncture where filmmakers need to band together and insist that whatever exists, that VOD is separate from other film revenue - it's the only way we can actually quantify in an honest way for the history of the lifetime of our films, after theatrical (release), how well they're doing. It's the only way to guarantee to an investor, if we're able to get some sort of residual from VOD, a lifetime of returns on a film. And that is the way to avoid a classic distributor financial harassment in which they (the distributors) put all the money in their pockets and no one gets any money back."
"This is the only known quantifiable way for the rest of time that one can actually see and authentically know that there is a value to his or her film and it's being sold for years to come. It's very important that we cut out the share, that we know it's always going to come to us, that it's not a piece of the pot, but an actual royalty to the people who financed the film and took the first risk. To me, that's the big fight," Jason says, keen on the importance of the issue, but abandoning all hope for a sandwich in the moment.
"People might be coming in with safer films," Joana concludes aloud, as she compares the 2010 market to the 2009 market in the wake of the death of Lehman Brothers and the onslaught of the financial crisis. "But at the end of the day, if it's not good, it's not going to sell."
So as you watch the stars parade in front of the cameras on Entertainment Tonight or Inside Edition as you flip on the TV to make dinner after a long hard day of work, don't underestimate the power you, as a consumer, has to determine which movies that get made, get bought, and get seen. All of this string pulling is going on in the market that is located directly behind that big red carpet displayed on your flat screen TV.
The movie executive downing an espresso at the stand next to me wonders if anyone's going to see that big movie he convinced people to pay millions of dollars to make so that you could enjoy it on the first date with your future wife, the family night with the kids, or from the comfort of your boxer shorts on your beat-up sofa. And just as you teach your kids to "play nice," with others, it's time the film world start welcoming these co-productions with even wider open arms and continue to search for ways to work together. If we set the precedent in the art we consume, perhaps, just perhaps, it can trickle down...to our politics and our economics.
Live from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, that's one to grow on.