Crashing the Cannes party

Smalltime filmmakers work the festival's outskirts trying to seal deals.

For two of the most important weeks in the world of cinema - the annual Cannes Film Festival - Rod Weinberg spends his time far from the epicenter of activity. Sitting in a prime position at the Carlton Hotel beach club, overlooking the Mediterranean thick with yachts, the British producer has set up his own brand of office. Here, off the Croisette, the town's main drag where the paparazzi stalks Tom Hanks, Cate Blanchett, and Penelope Cruz, Mr. Weinberg is busy taking meetings with prospective buyers of his film, "What Means Motley?"

The location is key, and not just for the views. Weinberg hopes to hook other Cannes denizens who may wander by as he tries to generate interest in his Irish-Romanian film about illegal immigration in Europe.

Away from the red carpet, beyond the din of the high-profile premières and late-night parties, independent filmmakers like Weinberg are hard at work. Call them true artists - or foolhardy risk-takers. These outsiders arrive in Cannes mostly on a wing and a prayer, searching for the right home for their baby - the right distributor, the right sales company, the right partner who can give the film its proper launch into the world. This is the other Cannes, where the creative world of art meets the cold hard reality of high commerce.

"By being at Cannes' most important hotel, and outside near the beach, I'm able to take advantage of those chance meetings that one can find here better than anywhere," says Weinberg.

The cards may be stacked against them, but don't tell that to filmmaker Jeff MacArthur (here with his new genre-heavy horror film, "Stolen Souls") or independent producer Fredric King (pitching both the documentary "B.I.K.E." and children's film "Before Z" through his company, Fountainhead). They look rather exhausted after a string of steady meetings, fetes into the wee hours, and the promise of that One Big Contact. But, sitting in the bar of the Majestic Hotel, MacArthur says, "It's all really exhilarating."

A community of film lovers

The atmosphere can be heady - and hot. Before a red-carpet première (held nightly in the Cannes Palais's vast Lumière Theatre), a band appropriately plays Gershwin's "Summertime" while the daytime sun sizzles the pavement and bakes festivalgoers. The heat is lightened by an occasional Mediterranean breeze, as well as a man in a garish Godzilla-type costume passing out postcards for a Japanese monster movie or a quartet of cutups promoting the latest wares from the grade-Z movie company, Troma.

And if, like MacArthur, Weinberg, and King, you're not planted inside the Palais itself, where both most of the festival and the market are housed, you find your own methods of making contacts - because at Cannes, connections are what it's all about.

Weinberg, a veteran of British rock 'n' roll (he was the manager for the legendary band The Animals) and an active producer with several independent European filmmakers, has no time for the Palais.

"I haven't been there at all," he says, dining at a restaurant on Cannes' far eastern (and notably quiet) peninsula. His unplanned encounters can mean running into distributor representatives who may spark to the fact that "What Means Motley?" won an award at the Dublin festival.

Director Todd Mitchell Felderstein, maker of "Magic(s)," a documentary about a doctor who treats Israeli and Palestinian children with an entertaining bedside manner, informed this reporter before Cannes that he dearly wishes that he could have attended, for the reason that MacArthur did: "Cannes is the entire world of film, reduced down to a few blocks."

"When I'm here, just like when I attended Sundance on my own, with no film to show, I'm reminded why I'm in this business, especially when I sit down with fellow filmmakers and share our hopes, dreams, and concerns," says MacArthur, seated in the beachside pavilion occupied by Ireland's national film commission. "I'm reminded that I belong to a community of fellow lovers of film."

And speaking of business, there's business to be done, which King says he's determined to do on his own. "I'm the sort of person who would rather do the job myself than hope that someone else can get it done." He calls himself "a filmmaker's producer," the kind who shepherds a film from inception to commercial release, and who frankly has a taste for difficult and more artistic projects such as "B.I.K.E.," which premièred this January at the Slamdance film festival, the renegade alternative festival to Sundance. The film tracks a group devoted to building and riding so-called "freak bikes," jerry-built two-wheelers that have sparked an international subculture.

"This is precisely the kind of film I want to see get out into the world, but getting it there is really hard," he says. "I've had really good contacts with distributors who I believe are right to handle this film. But I've also had these situations where I schedule a meeting, and the other party just blows me off."

Over a café au lait a mere stone's throw from the Palais, King mulls whether he might do best having a sales company on board, lending him extra clout when "facing companies who are just looking for an excuse to say, 'No.' "

Unlike Weinberg, MacArthur has been trudging the halls of the market, planning his routine based on a map of the vast trade-show interior and homing in on those companies with a good track record for horror films like "Stolen Souls."

At his booth, Michael Strange, president of distributor-producer Keystone Entertainment, gives a grim assessment of the prospects for these Cannes outsiders. "I'll be blunt: Cannes is not the festival for them. Unless you have already established significant support for your film - meaning a sales company whose job is to broker deals to theatrical, video, and ancillary territories around the world, or the backing of a well-recognized production house, or some combination of these - you are faced with insurmountable odds being even noticed here," he says. "What these filmmakers can do here is research - get to know the companies in the market, find out their production or release slates, see what it is they do, and if it's the right fit with their film."

No deals in hand

To be sure, by Wednesday, when many firms are ready to roll up their temporary shops here, leaving behind only the hard-core festival crowd, neither MacArthur, Weinberg, nor King had scored any hoped-for deals. Still, none cite their time here as either a waste or disappointment.

The well-tanned Weinberg concludes that his days at the Carlton "got things in motion for a deal" with a distributor, while King is happy that both "B.I.K.E." and "Before Z" have a few distributors talking "because of the fact that these films are so different from anything else out there right now."

"It's a weird feeling being here," says King. "On one hand, I'm glad to be leaving, because at least I won't have to deal with another flaky buyer. But then, I wish I could stay longer, because you never know if the next person you meet could change everything."

No hands-down favorites

As the final weekend of the Cannes Film Festival approaches, there is no absolute front-runner for the top Palme d'Or prize.

The widest support is for Pedro Almodovar's middling and unimaginative Volver (starring an incandescent Penélope Cruz in full movie-star form) and "Amores Perros" director Alejandro González Iñárritu's highly erratic Babel, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Lesser support is circulating for past Cannes prize-winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan's relationship drama, Climates; Ken Loach's well-crafted account of Irish rebellion, The Wind That Shakes the Barley; droll Finnish maestro Aki Kaurismäki's unexpectedly sad and typically spare Lights in the Dusk, minus his typical witty dialogue; and leading Italian auteur Nanni Moretti's The Cayman, with its pointed barbs at Italian politics.

Given jury president and Chinese director Wong Kar-wai's ("In the Mood For Love," "2046") love of the art cinema tradition of Michelangelo Antonioni, prize speculation has centered on Climates (full of nods to the Italian master) and even Sofia Coppola's disappointing Marie Antoinette, a superficial take on the ill-fated French queen, starring Kirsten Dunst.

However, few if any films competing in the Palais have matched the artistry, rigor, and resonance of Flanders, French filmmaker Bruno Dumont's brutal view of young men at war in today's Middle East.

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