Sony Pictures Classics (SPC) won a bidding war to takemulti-territory rights for Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) yesterday,the first US deal for a film in official selection to be announced here inCannes,

SPC took rights in the US, UK, Italy and Latin Americafrom Films Distribution in a multi-million dollar deal, beating out some stiffcompetition for the World War I heartwarmer from director Christian Carionwhich played out of competition.

The fact that the firstmajor US deal to be announced here took place on day eight of the festival isindicative of the lukewarm response to the films amongst buyers at Cannes. (Anumber of the competition films came to the festival with US buyers alreadyattached). Indeed the pre-sales market was as healthy as that for completedfilms.

"All the buyers are sayingthat the competition line-up isn't as interesting as previous years but thereare lots of films in the market that are in pre-production with big namesattached," said Gilky Wan, of Hong Kong distributor Deltamac. "It's competitive- lots of buyers are here and prices are high."

Business proved solid onselect films - very select films - even at pre-buy stage. The starry marketline-up included Michael Claytonwith George Clooney and Babelwith Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett from Summit, Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage and16 Blocks with Bruce Willis fromNu Image alongside Wong Kar-Wai's Nicole Kidman-starrer Lady From Shanghai from StudioCanal which scored its first pre-saleswith Concorde in Germany and Medusa in Italy even though a script still doesnot exist.

Another standout was TheWorld's Fastest Indian, starringAnthony Hopkins. Sales representative NZ Film closed several deals, withAlexander van Duelman's EEAP taking Eastern Europe, Russia, and German-speakingmarkets.

But hot completed filmsremained scarce. "There's a lot of product out there, but there are few strongfilms," said Cyril Burkel, acquisitions executive at France's MetropolitanFilms.

Although the Weinsteinsflexed their acquisition muscles with a handful of films, North American dealsremained thin on the ground. Bob Berney of Picturehouse, the joint USdistribution venture launched by New Line Cinema and HBO, said: "The marketseemed to be softer than in recent years, but then the last few several marketsin the calendar have been light so it's part of a cycle. The next one could bewar every day."

US deals were also imminenton Michael Haneke's rapturously received Hidden and Woody Allen's out-of-competition Match Point, which was also juggling different North Americanbids, most aggressively from The Weinstein Company. The Weinsteins distributedfour Allen films in the 1990s through Miramax.

Will Clarke of UKdistributor Optimum Releasing summed up the general mood saying: "The market isnot good, not bad'it's OK. Same with the festival."