Cannes Diary

Last day at Cannes with Killer Films.

Pam, Brad, Laird, and I crawl up and down the Croisette, continuing our pitch meetings, taking turns being “on.” People are surprisingly responsive. We’ve had two front-page stories at this festival: Our slate of films for the next year and our deal with Jody Patton and Paul Allen’s Clear Blue Sky. The Oscar nominations and award for Boys Don’t Cry inform everything. We had credibility before, but we still needed to shop director Kim Peirce around for years before we’d raised a scant couple of million to make that movie. Now people trust us when we say we know that a director has “got it.” They want to be in business with us.

We even meet with Kinowelt, which is sort of like the Miramax of Europe, only bigger. Kinowelt pulled its money out of Safe at the last moment in 1993, and there’s been bad blood since. But after some initial coolness (they say it was my fault, I say it was theirs, etc.), our meeting goes terrifically. Of course, that doesn’t automatically translate into a deal. You hear a lot of promises at Cannes, but follow-throughs are harder to come by. People here are not quite themselves. There’s an edge of unreality to all your business dealings. Even the most dismal places for meetings have views of the Riviera. Back in one’s grim office, things might look different.

On the Croisette I run into an old colleague, the producer, screenwriter (and former Slate diarist) James Schamus. He’s in his trademark bow tie, a tad sweaty in the relentless sunshine. James is delighted with the review of the new Ang Lee movie in the Hollywood Reporter—it was, he said, as if he’d written it himself. (Did he?) I’m happy for him. I know how much Ang’s last movie, Ride With the Devil, had meant to the folks at Good Machine and how devastated they were by its pallid release. So it’s good to see this one starting out with a bang. James congratulates us graciously on our deal with Clear Blue Sky, although he does manage to slip in that he knew about it before the official announcement.

We have lunch with director (and former Slate diarist) Whit Stillman to check on the progress of his adaptation of Anchee Minn’s Red Azalea. He has just finished his novelization of The Last Days of Disco and insists that we mention it in Slate.

One thing this “Dispatch” hasn’t mentioned is the movies at Cannes themselves. That’s because we’ve been so busy running from meeting to meeting that we’ve pretty much resigned ourselves to not seeing any.

The “buzz” this year is that there’s “nothing to buy,” and that the acquisitions execs are just going through the motions. Their attitude is: “I must see movies in order to pretend that my company is doing something other than spending inordinate amounts of money to sell last year’s leftovers.”

It seems in the last year as if we’ve heard that refrain at every festival. What’s going on? Independent film financing has changed drastically in a decade. “Independent” used to mean any film that you financed with no studio money and then took to market to sell. Now producers like Killer structure deals differently: We usually have our domestic distribution in place by the time we shoot, or else we sell the film during post-production. We can take advantage of the intense competition between the mini-majors (Miramax, October, Lion’s Gate, New Line, etc.) for good product and make a deal before we even get to the festivals.

Here are the movies they’re buzzing about: Dancer, The Yards, Harry, and NurseBetty.

Girlfight, Karin Kusama’s indie about a teen-age boxer from Brooklyn, does well when it’s shown at Cannes’ “director’s fortnight.” Amid the applause, one lone man stands and boos and the audience shouts him down viciously. Don’t fuck with the French.

Screenings at Cannes can be terrifying—the audience does not hold back. The films in competition are shown in the grand Palaise du Cinema, a vast theater with an enormous screen. It’s strictly black-tie. As your movie begins you sit completely still, praying for silence. A cough can echo forever in the big hall and set off a whole chain, so that it sounds like a TB ward. But it gets worse. The seats in the Palais are heavy and jolt up when you leave them, making an audible thud. That’s the sound you dread most. In a bad screening you hear thudthudthud thud thudthud thudthud—every thud sending an earthquake-like spasm through your body.

As we get ready for dinner, we talk about how Cannes is its own world, with its own vocabulary, rituals, and daily newspapers. Nothing outside of show business has meaning. For two weeks, you may be unaware of unrest in Kosovo, but you are keenly tuned into the post-production status of Spiders 2.

Cannes is also something of a yardstick for me. I’ve been coming here for 10 years, and each year my experience reflects the changes in my career. The first year, I slept on the floor of someone’s hotel room and my meals were strange little hors d’oeuvres at the parties I managed to worm my way into. I actually went to see the movies.

Here’s what changed, in chronological order:

First I got to stay in hotels.

Then I didn’t have to share a bed unless I wanted to.

Then my movies showed in competition, and I got to wear a suit and walk up the red carpet.

Then I actually got invited to parties and didn’t have to rely on friendship with the publicist at the door to get me in.

Then people called me to try to set up meetings instead of the other way around.

Now—this is the most amazing change—I occasionally pick up a check. But that’s still pretty rare.

I’ve lost something, too. I don’t stay out as late. In the old days, I’d go to parties until 2 a.m. and drink tons of beer at the bar of the Petite Majestic until 5. The year that ThisBoy’s Life was screened I sat outside the Petite Majestic at 3 a.m. watching the late CAA agent Jay Maloney chat up Leonardo DiCaprio. The sense of serendipidity is gone. I used to gasp when I found myself three feet from some movie star or legendary director, but it’s all familiar now: the same cast of characters, the same parties, the same little quiches. Business as usual. Has the festival changed or have I? Probably both. As we head to our last dinner, on a yacht, I am oddly nostalgic for that earlier, more guerrilla Cannes. I’d sleep on the floor to get it back.