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Beyond the red carpet, there’s brisk business

Cannes film market is home to movies that aren’t exactly art

Lucrative deals can be made at le Marché du Film, the vast expanse of stalls and cubicles on the garden level of the Palais des Festivals. Lucrative deals can be made at le Marché du Film, the vast expanse of stalls and cubicles on the garden level of the Palais des Festivals. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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CANNES, France — Every year the world’s film journalists and enthusiasts descend on the French Riviera in pursuit of art. But the smart people come looking for crap. Unlike the art, it’s more plentiful and easier to find. One could spend 12 whole days at the Cannes Film Festival going from one strongly made, emotionally devastating film to the next, wholly ignorant of what this festival is also about: “Ong Bak 3.’’

No, the hit Tony Jaa martial-arts franchise is not up for the prestigious Palme d’Or. But it’s leaving with something far more valuable to bean counters: lucrative international distribution deals. A nice, bored-looking representative for the Thai studio behind “Ong Bak 3,’’ Sahamongkol Film International, manned a booth in the vast expanse of stalls and cubicles that populate the garden level of the Palais des Festivals, Cannes’s main screening, press, and administrative complex.

Sahamongkol is also looking for international attention for its other movies, like the comedy “My Trip With Che.’’ Its trailer, which played in a loop on a flat-screen monitor at the booth, suggests a combination of “Dude, Where’s My Car?,’’ anything with Cheech and Chong, and the gross-out movie of your choosing. Even then, I’m doing it a disservice. There are two tubby, dimwitted twins who look like Jerry Lewis playing both Tweedledee and Tweedledum; and Che drives a truck and looks like Che Guevara.

Officially, this business village is called the market, or le Marché du Film. It’s situated in a location that can only be described as the bowels of the Palais. The red carpet, so brilliant elsewhere around the premises, has been replaced with a no less brilliant but apter purple. The average person with a movie in Cannes is pushing it in or around the Marché, hunting or hoping for a deal. Many of the films are screened, often in a room near the booth of the production company. That can be awkward: you, a handful of others, and a salesperson in a tiny space watching a DVD. It’s not the opposite of the Cannes experience, since as many if not more people traipse through the Marché looking to buy and sell movies as they do to watch them with the public.

These are movies the main festival would never show, like “Housefull,’’ a 2 1/2-hour Bollywood comedy from Eros Studios about misunderstandings between very sexy friends. The movie was a record-breaking hit in India, and Eros is hoping for more of the same in a country near you. Last year, the Marché and the film market generally were grim. The recession made it hard to close deals, and the attractive titles resulted in bidding wars. But a lot of companies went home with less than they wanted. Variety, which prints a daily Cannes edition, reported last week that business this year was starting to pick up. Indeed, the cocktail parties and press conferences continued even for movies that don’t exist yet. Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard were here in support of “Winnie,’’ a to-be-filmed biography of the former Mrs. Nelson Mandela. It will be out eventually, barring the real Winnie’s attempts to kill the project.

For decades, the gates, balconies, and skies on La Croisette, the boulevard here that runs along the Mediterranean, have doubled as billboards for hype. You’ll be pleased to know, for instance, that posters are up for the Hollywood version of the shooter game Kane & Lynch, starring Bruce Willis and Jamie Foxx. So are the posters for “Son of No One,’’ a drama starring, among others, Tracy Morgan and Juliette Binoche. And is that Jack Black tied down in those enormous banners for “Gulliver’s Travels’’ (Dec. 22!)? I’m afraid it is. The wood used for paper to promote, invite, and remind is equivalent to a lifetime of Jessica Alba performances.

For now, Alba is a long way from the actual Marché, where even the American movies star people you’re not sure you’ve heard of. Someone named Ashlee Hewitt, who appeared in season six of “Nashville Star,’’ is the above-the-title attraction in “Elle: A Modern Cinderella Tale.’’ Vision Films, the company looking to sell that movie, says it’s amassed holdings of 1,000 titles in 13 years of business.

At the Vision Market stall, Lise Romanoff, Vision’s managing director of worldwide distribution, said Hewitt is “going to be very big in the US.’’ She said that the family film is Vision’s biggest market and that Ving Rhames, currently starring in two non-family Vision titles (“King of the Avenue’’ and “The Wrath of Cain’’) is a top international and straight-to-DVD draw: “There’s no country that doesn’t want Ving Rhames, for some reason.’’

Around the world, Tony Jaa is a superstar. A sales agent at the Sahamongkol booth said that even in his native Thailand a critics’ favorite like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has a new film in this year’s main competition, is strictly an acquired taste.

Lots of international film festivals are heavy on the commerce. Films selected to screen by the programming staff commonly arrive without a distributor. A publicist or the filmmakers themselves make sure journalists and industry representatives are sufficiently aware of the movies. The Marché is something else entirely, a smaller version of the American Film Market, which happens every November in Santa Monica.

After an hour of walking around at the Marché, talking to the CEOs and distribution heads and sales reps of dozens of tiny companies, Cannes can feel more like a convention than a film festival. The Marché is beside the point of cinema, but very much the point of moviegoing. All movies have to be sold, even bad ones, since there is an audience. Somebody will think it’s good. And it isn’t as though Cannes forces you down in the Palais’s bowels. Church is effectively separated from state.

Outside the Palais, there’s little demarcation. The men and woman doing the buying and selling are the ones whose conversations you overhear at dinner. It’s possible that a few of them could be just as happy hawking forks. But you don’t have to listen very hard to hear passion in their voices. If these people aren’t serious about movies, they are serious about profiting from them. C’est la vie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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