The Screen Machine

How producers, directors and stars work the film festival circuit.

Robert Lantos is at a round table on the terrace of the Hotel Martinez, one of the grandest in Cannes. With him are eight journalists eager to talk about sex–specifically, the sex in his new movie, the $31-million Where the Truth Lies, which has just been screened for the press and premières that night. The scene in question: a sultry ménage-a-trois involving two celebrities, played by Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, and a slim little chambermaid.

Lantos is one of English Canada's few internationally recognized producers, and his director, Atom Egoyan, is one of its few internationally recognized filmmakers. Where the Truth Lies has already been sold in several major territories, including Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea. But Lantos is looking for the sale that really counts: a U.S. deal.

The journalists ask if he is worried the film's sex scenes might saddle it with an NC-17 rating in the U.S., and, if so, would he be willing to cut them. (Many U.S. exhibitors refuse to show NC-17 films for fear of offending patrons.) “If ever there was a film made where sexuality was integral to the story, this is it,” he answers. In the movie, a journalist (Alison Lohman) investigates the mysterious death of the chambermaid, an event that ended the careers of a comedy duo portrayed by Bacon and Firth. “There would be no plot if the threesome didn't take place,” Lantos adds. “We're not going to cut.”

Where the Truth Lies, whose North American première will be at the Toronto International Film Festival, on Sept. 13, is Lantos's sixth film with Egoyan, a director with a sterling critical reputation–which is to say, sadly, his films don't make much money. The truth is, Lantos could use a hit. His last three films–2004's Being Julia, 2003's The Statement, and 2002's Egoyan-directed Ararat–all underperformed. A big U.S. sale for Where the Truth Lies would be propitious.

Lantos stays at the most exclusive hotel on the Côte d'Azur, the Hotel du Cap. He has a full-time staff who seemingly stretch themselves to the breaking point to fulfil his every want. But on this Friday the 13th, the third day of the 2005 Cannes International Film Festival, in May, he is just another Canadian trying to make a buck. “This,” says Lantos, looking around the table, “is where half my job starts.”

Cannes is where many things start, and just as many end. Films are launched, deals are done, rights are sold–and then the whole thing starts over again. Every business has its cycle, and Cannes is the international film industry's solstice, its longest, brightest stretch. For two weeks, the resort town on France's Mediterranean coast is occupied by a frenzied crowd from every spectrum of the film industry.

Down the Croisette, the city's chic waterfront boulevard, at the Hotel Majestic, Roger Frappier is having a cup of tea. “Cannes is the No. 1 market and Toronto is No. 2,” he says. “Then comes the AFM [American Film Market in Los Angeles] in November and then Berlin in February. Those are the four poles.”

The founder and president of Montreal-based Max Films, Frappier aims to have at least one completed film in each of those four major markets, while selling remaining territories on titles previously launched. This time at Cannes, he has the comedy La Vie avec mon père. At Toronto, he will present that film and also the world première of Saints-Martyrs-des-Damnés, about two journalists investigating a series of mysterious disappearances. Frappier hopes to have three new pictures ready for sale at Cannes 2006; right now, if he can convince a foreign distributor of the strength of the idea, he can negotiate a pre-sale, where the buyer pays for the film (at a discount) before it's made and underwrites the production budget.

Frappier produced his first picture at 40, after a career of directing, writing and editing. The film was Denys Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire, nominated for the foreign-language Academy Award in 1986. Needless to say, it had its world première at Cannes, and Frappier has been a regular ever since. “It's not just seeing people,” he says. “It's seeing films. If you can see two or three films a day, by the end of the festival you have a good sense of production coming in the next year–so that when you leave Cannes, it's something that is flowing in your veins.”

And 2005 is a stand-out year for Canadian filmmakers at Cannes. For the first time, two English-Canadian filmmakers have films in competition–Egoyan with Where the Truth Lies and David Cronenberg with A History of Violence, a noir thriller of mistaken identity starring Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris. It, too, makes its North American première at Toronto.

But there are really two Cannes. One celebrates the medium, represented by films such as these. That is the side the world sees, where starlets sashay up the red carpet of the Palais des Festivals and flash their wardrobe malfunctions. The other side, only the industry sees: the Marché, the world's largest film bazaar, a vast convention hall within the Palais itself, open to anyone who can afford the Û299 ($440) entry fee. But one need not be in the Marché to be at the Marché–Lantos would never set foot in the place. The plumpest deals are cut in the hotels along the Croisette: the Majestic, the Carlton, the Miramar and the Martinez.

It is to the Martinez that Toronto-born Rachel Blanchard has come to help sell Where the Truth Lies. And herself. At 29, Blanchard is already reaching the point where many actresses start playing moms and other second bananas. This is her first visit to Cannes–and she doesn't want it to be her last. Blanchard is in full ingratiation mode, smiling broadly and looking every questioner in the eye, like a job applicant. She plays the chambermaid in Lantos's film, the filling in the Bacon and Firth manwich. The first question from the journalists concerns her beauty; the next is about the sex scene. The scrutiny is intense and often bizarre. “What type of under-eye makeup do you use?” asks a woman from the Los Angeles Times, her tone accusatory. “You look like you've slept 29 hours.”

David Cronenberg looks like he hasn't slept in 29 hours. But that's part of his mystique. It's Monday, May 16, on the private beach of the Hotel Majestic–and it's his turn for the round-table treatment.

Cronenberg is as much a businessman as a filmmaker. He directed and produced his last two films, 2002's Spider and 1999's eXistenZ. And that's part of the problem: he's tired of scraping together financing to make movies. He wants to leave that to somebody else and just shoot the damn things. Cronenberg is forthright about doing his latest picture for New York-based New Line Productions as a gun-for-hire director. “I needed the money,” he said, in an interview before Cannes.

At the round table, he can't resist taking a shot at Woody Allen. Earlier in the festival, Allen explained that his latest film, Match Point, starring Scarlett Johansson, was financed out of the U.K. and shot there because he's finding it hard to find money for his films in the U.S. “He's been in a bubble,” says Cronenberg. “I've had to do that since my first movie.”

There are two kinds of films on Canada's movie screens: the ones made in Hollywood and the ones the average Canadian never sees. Canadians like Rachel Blanchard, and now, for that matter, David Cronenberg, have a foot in both worlds. She's been based in L.A. for nearly 10 years, after landing the lead role in the TV series Clueless in the mid-'90s. But as a Canadian, her presence in a Canadian film is financially beneficial: she provides a trace of marquee value, while her nationality delivers a larger tax credit. Blanchard's previous Canadian film was in and out of Canadian cinemas in a week. You've never heard of it. Cronenberg has been making Canadian films that Canadians have been ignoring for years; the last film that could be construed as commercial was his remake of The Fly, a U.S.-financed production starring Jeff Goldblum, released nearly 20 years ago.

Cronenberg doesn't have to sell A History of Violence; he's not its producer. But he's in Cannes to promote it and, by association, his talent as a filmmaker. Commercial success for the film will revive the Cronenberg brand in Hollywood and elsewhere. Even if he doesn't make another Hollywood picture for years, the afterglow of success will be lasting. What Hollywood will not tolerate is failure; if your films don't make money, you don't exist.

In Canada, it's a little more complicated. Canadians show little interest in their own films–in 2004, English-Canadian films accounted for 1.6% of the box office. But Canadian titles do sell overseas, and internationally Canada is a buyer, a seller and frequent partner in international co-productions. Still, our status as a co-producer is diminishing. Last year, Canada's leading partner country, the U.K., decided that a co-production with Canada must spend 40% of its budget in the U.K., up from 20%. Where the Truth Lies, majority financed out of the U.K., was the last film produced before those rules took effect.

Canada's importance in the global film industry can be assessed in the pages of The Guide, the catalogue published annually by the Marché. The 2005 edition has 1,088 pages and weighs five pounds; in it are 2,600 companies, 6,500 delegates and 2,900 films. Canada occupies 48 pages, about 4% of the total. (Tellingly, by far the largest Canadian contingent–14 persons–represents the Toronto International Film Festival. Our film industry may not punch over its weight, but our main festival sure does.)

Cannes is where you have to be, even if, in relative terms, you're a nobody–which pretty much describes one's sensation on a first visit to the festival. Stephen Hegyes remembers his: the co-founder of Vancouver's Brightlight Pictures, he first came to Cannes in 1989, when he was still in film school. He stayed in Nice, 20 minutes away by train; he had paid 25 francs a night (about $5.50 back then) for a hostel bed. Now, on the terrace of the Carlton hotel, the Heineken he is drinking costs double that. “I went to as many films and parties as I could and met all the Canadian distributors,” says Hegyes. It paid off: when he got back home, those distributors returned his phone calls. The market had 2,300 titles that year. “I got depressed imagining breaking through that,” Hegyes recalls. “But it helped me shape a marketing plan for my first film, Double Happiness, watching what people pay attention to.”

Hegyes and his business partner, Shawn Williamson, established Brightlight in 2001; it's one of the most financially successful feature-film production companies in Vancouver. Brightlight's business plan is a microcosm of the Canadian industry: it is heavily dependent on producing U.S.-financed fare for a fee–so-called “service production”–while making Canadian and international co-productions in which it holds equity.

In his seven days at Cannes, Hegyes anticipates 40 meetings. He is selling his company's latest film, Severed, a zombie flick that it owns outright, and he's pre-selling a film the company plans to shoot next year. He is also shopping for remake rights. Brightlight is currently service-producing a remake of the 1973 U.K. horror film The Wicker Man for U.S.-based Millennium Films, with star Nicolas Cage. “There are two types of meetings,” says Hegyes. “The ones you set up in advance, and the kind that just happen, when you bump into someone, sit down and–lo and behold–they have something that might work for you. Those sort of meetings can only happen if you're here.”

Hegyes explains the basics of a film sale. “You present the film, you get offers. If you don't get offers, you're in trouble. Sometimes, the buyer will low-ball, and you have to decide whether to accept it or hold off. That's where you need to gauge the market. If there are five films like yours, you might accept it. Or you might want to wait toward the end of the market, as buyers realize they can't go home without a few more titles and the prices shoot up, and you can close a bunch of territories.” In other words, buy in Cannes or wait until Toronto, where a public audience may give a better indication of a film's playability, but where another, richer distributor may outbid you.

Simply put, there are two types of films: the ones buyers want and the ones buyers need. This is not a qualitative assessment, but rather a reflection of the industry axiom: “No one knows anything.” The movie junkyard is piled high with surefire hits that underperformed or bombed. Still, a film distributor needs movies to sell tickets. Cannes is expensive; you can't afford to return home empty-handed. If the Marché has titles with potential for the giant U.S. market, they are snapped up by American companies, who typically purchase so-called North American rights and then sell the film to a Canadian distributor. Generally, no Canadian buyer outbids an American, but when a seller hasn't yet found a U.S. company to buy its film, a Canadian buyer can step forward and offer to take Canadian rights; the fee can range from as little as $5,000 to as much as $750,000.

It's noon on Day 7 at Cannes. Gabriella Martinelli is in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Croisette Beach, sipping a Coke. Martinelli, who heads up Toronto-based Capri Films, has been producing movies for 25 years; her latest, Terry Gilliam's Tideland, another Canada-U.K. co-production, shot in Saskatchewan, will have its première at Toronto. She counts through her Day-timer: 10 to 15 meetings daily. “This morning I had three breakfasts,” she says. Martinelli recently branched out into distribution, launching Capri Releasing in 2004 with distribution and exhibition veteran Tony Cianciotta. Like Frappier, Martinelli is in Cannes putting out feelers for potential co-production partners. In her portfolio is a sheaf of projects, the films of the future–or not.

The titles are promising, and so are the pitches: High-Rise, based on the novel by J. G. Ballard, is, as Martinelli puts it, “Lord of the Flies in an apartment tower.” But the sexiest title by far is Villeneuve, the story of the late, great Canadian Formula One racer who died in 1982. “Racing movies are expensive and really dull,” says Martinelli. “Steve McQueen almost bankrupted himself making Le Mans.” But she believes she has an ace card: Villeneuve's son, Jacques, the World Champion in 1997 and an active Formula One driver, has agreed to participate. The film, if it goes forward, won't shoot until 2007. But it definitely won't get made without co-operation from a few key players. Her next stop after Cannes is Monaco, 55 kilometres along the Riviera, where she will meet with F1's representatives. “From a business standpoint, Cannes may not be as necessary as it was,” says Martinelli. “We have ongoing relationships with people. But in terms of getting a sense of the industry, of new people, new financing opportunities, co-production treaty changes–these are discussions you have in Cannes.”

The festival balloon starts to lose air around Day 10. By then, most of the players have left. For sellers looking to close and buyers who need titles, the stakes rise. They can pay more in Cannes because they've been seduced by the prestige of the festival, only to watch their film underperform because no one in North America cares about a Palme d'Or or any other foreign award.

By the last day, the only people left are the French and the award-winners. A Belgian film, L'Enfant, a dark drama about a street kid who sells his newborn child, took the big prize. Its North American première is at the Toronto film festival.

A History of Violence didn't win a prize; neither did Where The Truth Lies. Lantos got a U.S. distribution deal, but nothing like the one he was hoping for. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release the film on video in the U.S.; North American theatrical release and TV sales will be through a much smaller company, ThinkFilm, a New York- and Toronto-based distribution company of which Lantos is the majority partner. In essence, he sold the film to himself.

In August, Lantos and Egoyan's film got the NC-17 rating; they were appealing. At the Toronto festival, more round tables await Lantos, and more questions about sex. Rachel Blanchard will be there.

Tony Cianciotta at Capri picked up five films in Cannes, two of which will be presented at Toronto. One, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, is a South African film based on the opera Carmen, performed in the Bantu language of Xhosa. It's not a blockbuster by any stretch, but it fits the reality of Capri's acquisition budget. “You have to know your place,” says Cianciotta. “You have to establish yourself with the films you like. And then you can confidently take a step further.”

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha made its world première at the Berlin festival in February. There, it won the top prize–but it didn't sell. As is the way in the business, it has to wait for the next cycle.