June 2, 2012
THE Cannes film festival was conventional, a terrific launch pad for The Sapphires, and wet. At least that’s the consensus from the many Australians returning home this week from the world’s most prestigious film festival.
The reception for the Wayne Blair-directed musical The Sapphires was as rapturous as initial media reports suggested, with anticipation not just of the local release but now of its prospects internationally.
“As a veteran Cannes attendee – this was my 15th year in a row – it was a really fresh thing for me,” says Hopscotch’s Troy Lum, the film’s Australian distributor and co-producer. “That had a lot to do with Wayne and the girls [the stars of the Aboriginal girl group who are the Sapphires: Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman]. They are not jaded, so it was a wonderful experience for them and the audience bought into that, especially their little dance on the red carpet.”
Lum was also happy with his screening of excerpts from the Australia-France co-production The Mothers (previously known as The Grandmothers), filmed in NSW and starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts. Another distributor says the film was received well with sales interest “from every single territory” as buyers realised the premise of two close friends sleeping with each other’s sons was more palatable than they might have anticipated when in the hands of actresses such as Watts and Wright.
Animal Kingdom director David Michod’s next film, the thriller The Rover, also attracted much interest before it goes into production, with Roadshow Films acquiring it in a surprisingly confident market. There was a lot on offer as usual, “but not a lot of strong, distinctive product”, says one distributor.
Melbourne International Film Festival director Michelle Carey agrees. “On reflection, it wasn’t as super strong as last year,” she says. “Last year there were so many giant titles and big directors.
“You can’t go in expecting every film to be a masterpiece, but in terms of the variety of styles and countries represented it was very satisfying, even if the films in competition were more conventional. There were not so many jaw-dropping, crazy moments.”
And even if there were, it was too late for Australian distributors to acquire them. Festival directors such as Carey and Brisbane’s Richard Moore were in Cannes to book films for their coming festivals. Their job is a touch easier than that of the Australian distributors. One distributor says with a laugh that he was there to view films “you bought the year before and now regret buying. Stuff always looks good on paper.”
Nevertheless, Australian distributors had their wins. Transmission Films, distributor of The King’s Speech, confirmed its relationship with The White Ribbon’s Michael Haneke, buying Amour last year. Haneke’s poignant film about mortality, starring Jean-Louis Tritignant and Emmanuel Riva, this week won the festival’s main prize, the Palme d’Or.
Similarly, Hopscotch acquired Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bones well before it became one of the best-received films of the festival and a box-office smash with 550,000 admissions in its first week of release in France.
They are two of a growing number of Australian distributors active in the market, with international sales agents particularly keen to sell to Australia.
“It is a key market, definitely, because it’s a buoyant market,” says Lum. That importance has heightened as crucial international markets Spain, Italy and Japan have waned thanks to the European financial crisis and Japan’s growing appetite for its own films. Even the previously strong independent US market is depressed. “Australian input to a pre-sale can get a project over the line,” Lum says.
“There certainly seems to be a sense that they’re really keen to make a sale to Australia,” MIFF’s Carey says of the sales agents. That makes her job harder because many are reticent to commit their films to festival screenings because they expect to sell the film. A prime example was the Thai 2010 Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Carey says it was a “slam dunk for festivals” and not commercial yet was almost held back by an over-confident sales agent. Even worse, now many agents hold their releases in the expectation of making a run for Academy Awards late in the year and early in the new year.
The festival director’s job is to assess completed product at Cannes and negotiate quickly to hit the Australian festival circuit’s winter deadlines. The work of Australian distributors is done before they arrive in Cannes. That is risky, Transmission’s co-founder Richard Payten concedes, “but that’s where it’s at. Most of the business is pre-buying, so all the main stuff screening in competition, the deals were done the year before or the year before that.
“You have a sense of what’s what and you track what you can, but there’s always going to be a little gem or surprise here or there to discover. But for all the bigger titles, it’s all about reading the script.”
Lum says his readers assessed about 150 screenplays before the festival and bid on six. The two they’ve acquired thus far would whet any appetite. The most hotly contested project was Lee Daniels’s follow-up to The Paperboy, which split audiences at Cannes despite acclaim for Nicole Kidman’s performance. His next, The Butler, is based on the true tale of an African-American (Forest Whitaker, with Oprah Winfrey as his wife) who was a presidential butler in the White House for 46 years.
Hopscotch’s other key acquisition was the biopic of Princess Grace of Monaco (the role is to be played by Kidman), directed by La Vie en Rose’s Olivier Dahan. Transmission has its own The Butler in another hot film, Haute Cuisine, the true story of former French president Francois Mitterrand’s private chef, from The Separation’s Christian Vincent.
A film that screened to buyers yet wasn’t selected for the main festival as anticipated was Cloud Atlas, the $100 million-plus epic based on David Mitchell’s novel. Several Australian buyers saw the film starring – in multiple roles – Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving, but no one acquired it given its hefty pricetag.
“It was kind of extraordinary for lots of different reasons,” says Lum. “It’s probably one of the most memorable screenings I’ve been to in Cannes but I can’t quite make a judgment call because some of it was amazing and some it was baffling.”
Will it screen here? “It has a huge budget and huge asking price, but you never know,” says one local distributor. “They’re going to have to be realistic about the price.”
Most of the cinematic action now happens away from the main competition at Cannes. Despite solid reviews for many films, Cannes’ selection policy is staid and predictable. Haneke won his second Palme d’Or and some old faithfuls – almost always men – returned in competition at the auteur-friendly festival.
“That’s been the case for a long time at Cannes in competition,” says Carey. “It feels like the same guys up there in competition year after year; you know Ken Loach, Audiard, Haneke are going to be there.
“I don’t find the competition that surprising, that’s just the way they select their films. They very rarely break a new director and the boldest filmmaking tends to be in the Directors’ Fortnight or Un Certain Regard sidebars.”
Consequently, many of the Cannes films we will see in cinemas or festivals this year are regarded as serviceable but rarely groundbreaking. The most striking was Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which Brisbane International Film Festival director Moore describes as “the height of art house obscurity” but Carey loved as “a real WTF? film. It stood out because formally it was so unusual compared to the other films in competition,” she says.
Moore was disappointed by Mexican Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux as well but enamoured with Ulrich Seidl’s look at Western women in Africa, Paradise: Love.
And for once, we’re likely to see them all here. “The distributors are picking up quite unusual fare,” Carey says