This year�s Cannes Film Festival was overcast and rainy. And, as if to mirror the gloomy weather, reports by the trades indicated that the market was slow and lacked any punch orpassion. Screen International said: �Maybe it was the dollar exchange rate or the rain that dampened enthusiasm, but the Cannes market has lacked the hoped-for punch�business was done but it was solid rather than spectacular�in fact some of the problems were a direct hangover from previous soft markets which left a glut of product, squeezing prices.�
The International Herald Tribune reported that movie executives were totting up the cost on entertainment in a world economy rocked by the credit crisis but that �more ominous than a looming recession, some executives said, were the other challenges faced by the industry, like piracy, flat attendance in theatres, slowing DVD sales and competition from the Web and video games.�
The Times in London agreed: �There is some serious stocktaking going on. The recession has wrapped cold fingers around Hollywood budgets. The city gamblers, who were once a ubiquitous nuisance on the wildly overpriced rented boats in the Marina at Cannes, are evaporating by the second. Venerable and vintage old salts, such as (film critic) Derek Malcolm, think the recession might nudge independent cinema into a new ice age. The fears are very real. Wall Street money is vanishing, and the buyers of thinking films are infinitely more choosey. The credit crunch poses intriguing questions. There is still a significant amount of �slush� money on the production side of the industry, but hard-headed distributors think that this will disappear in a matter of months.�
Variety reported that it�s been a dismal year at the specialty box-office �with niche pics experiencing a lamentable fall and spring, and with marketing costs rising, buyers and sellers alike are figuring out new strategies to deal with the changes. �It�s turned strange,� one specialty distribution exec said. �How do you attract people�s attention?��
Attracting people�s attention was foremost in the minds of those who set up and attended the South African pavilion, which by all accounts was very well organised, very swish and totally professional. And coming from an industry that loves to �bitch�, that�s a massive compliment. Jeremy Nathan of DV8 who was there to discuss distribution on �Bunny Chow� and Darrell Roodt�s �Zimbabwe�, as well as trying to secure funding for projects, said: �The NFVF, DTI and IDC did a very good job, it was slick, glossy and efficient. For us South Africans it was a wonderful oasis in all the madness but the pavilion clearly said � �we�re here and we�re open for business.�
Animator Michael Rix, who was there to punt his movie �Tengers�, agreed: �The South African stand was fairly busy and is always a good base for local filmmakers, as we had access to e-mail, good coffee and all that � in fact they were very accommodating. I try and get to Cannes every year just to recharge my batteries and get inspired by other filmmakers and films. Unfortunately five days in the week I was there it was raining, which I think affected the mood and the numbers a lot. There were no topless French beauties on the beach this year, which is sad.�
According to Terry Tselane, Chief Executive of Gauteng Film Commission, attendance at Cannes this year was invaluable as extensive interest was shown in shooting in Gauteng. In particular, the UK and US markets seem very keen to work further afield � as both countries are currently experiencing difficulties in their home markets. �These producers are attracted to our favourable exchange rate, diverse and unique locations, excellent crew capability, technical capacity and a growing international reputation for quality work. Add to this the new DTI rebate scheme and we are looking particularly attractive right now�, Tselane says.
In addition, three Johannesburg-based productions were screened in the market this year. �With Zimbabwe, Triomf and Jerusalema, Gauteng was well represented at Cannes, reflecting the diversity of local voices that have emerged in recent years. Increasingly we are seeing interest from international buyers who are now much more aware of Joburg�s �new wave�. We have also noted growing interest from film festivals across the world who attend Cannes to source new content for their own programmes � so we are following up on a number of these requests�, Tselane concluded.
Ryan Haidarian of the National Film and Video Foundation said there was good buzz at the South African pavilion. �The stand had a much nicer design this year that made having meetings much easier.� As for the world credit-crunch, he didn�t think it had much effect. �It didn�t impact on the projects that are right for South Africa nor on the attention that South African projects looking for partners got. If anything, I think our reputation is garnering more attention.�
For the past few years, and after the successes of �Yesterday�, �Tsotsi� and �Carmen E�Khayalitsha�, the country enjoyed a �honeymoon� period at Cannes and Haidarian says it isn�t over: �Sure it�d be nice to have more projects in the market and a few in the official selection, but the incentives still attract those looking for financing and projects that can bring resources from their home territories. (If anything) our lack of bankable talent makes it hard to attract pre-sales or partnerships prior to the films being completed.�
But it�s not just a case of getting Charlize Theron or Arnold Vosloo to commit to a local movie; it�s also about making good movies that can compete on the world stage. Nathan, a veteran of over twenty Cannes festivals, says that it�s incredibly tough out there, �especially for small, African films. The world is closing their borders, broadcasters and buyers are concentrating more on their own small local films and you need to work really, really hard to make films that stand out in the marketplace.�
He says it�s changed for South Africans and much harder than say in 2004 when he was there with Ian Gabriel�s film �Forgiveness�, adding that overseas producers and distributors respect the fact that South Africa is operational, and that some are interested in the locations and the incentives while others are genuinely interested in our stories - but we still need to make better films. �It�s like they�re saying we�ve given you all the goodwill we can, we know you have money, we know you can make films � now come up to the level and compete, show us films that can harness an audience, that can break through.�
Nathan draws a comparison with Latin America which has seen a boom both in local production and servicing studio films since the release of Brazilian hit �City of God� in 2003 (the film grossed over $30 million worldwide and was nominated for four Oscars). �There�s a deluge of films from Argentina and Brazil, so much so that distributors can pick and choose and be very selective. In fact, if truth be told, the North and the West couldn�t really care about our movies � unless we make a truly magnificent film that can win at major festivals.�
Michael Raeburn, who was there with �Triomf�, was more upbeat and says that his film received a great response especially from African viewers. �What the African audience liked was that it is not another expected or conventional film about Africa. That it was daring and politically edgy. Not safe, nor about dictators, food shortages and other issues that European producers prefer to concentrate on, in order to appear worthy. But audiences were from all over the world and people were disturbed, amused, touched�often leaving the cinema in an emotional state � �all shaking� said a man from Italy.� As for deals he says producer Lyndon Plant and himself are in discussions with a French and a German distributor and the Sundance Channel as well as two international sales agents. �But people tend to be cautious to do deals in Cannes unless they have to �they wait till they get home and can have a calm, clear think about it all.�
With a clear theme � �Your co-production partner of choice� � South Africans in Cannes did their best to woo international projects, while others tried to get a fix on what�s happening globally, including the fears and confusion over new digital platforms. Above all though the focus was to see what specialty films the rest of the world is buying and watching.It�s clear that film distribution is now, more than ever before, divided into two distinct camps. There�s the Indiana Jones event-flick which we have no real hope of competing with and then films like �The Class�/ �Entre Les Murs�, which won the Palme D�or, an improvised docu-drama about teaching pupils from underprivileged immigrant backgrounds at an inner-city school in Paris, or �Tulpan� from Kazakhstan, the winner of Un Certain Regard (reserved for first and second features), which has been described as �a charmingly vivid comedy about a shy courtship with an amazing supporting cast of lifestock�. Then there�s runner-up �Johnny Mad Dog�, a French/Belgian/Liberian co-production about a feral militia force of child soldiers in an unnamed African country. All three of these movies could have been made here: they have no major stars, but have received rave reviews based on their stories and their filmmakers� vision. Hopefully at next year�s Cannes South Africa will be able to deliver the same.