Buyers on the Croisette were decisive — and surprisingly plentiful — for international sales companies with solid projects.

Buyers apparently know what they want, according to sellers at this year’s Cannes film market. Despite a wave of gloom going into the market, sellers reported that pre-sales were surprisingly brisk as distributors arrived knowing exactly the type, genre and budget of product they wanted. If it was theatrical and marketable, it would sell.

“There have been none of the time-waster meetings and the recession has weeded out all the chancers. It’s all about product”

Natalie Brenner, head of sales Ealing Studios International

With US unemployment levels showing signs of stabilising and early indications that credit markets are opening up again, some believe the economic crisis may bottom out within six months. In cyclical terms, that means the American Film Market might not be flooded with new projects, but the focus for both sellers and buyers would be real films at reasonable prices.

Cannes saw a strong emphasis on “real” films. Buyers have been burnt in recent years by allotting part of their acquisition budgets to films that never get made. On the Croisette, for example, many were confused by duelling Jason Statham projects — The Mechanic and The Killer Elite — and wanted to know which will go first.

(According to Statham’s manager, Steve Chasman, Nu Image’s The Mechanic, a remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson thriller to be directed by Simon West and produced by Chartoff Winkler Productions, is set to shoot this summer. The $40m The Killer Elite, based on Ranulph Fiennes’ novel The Featherman about British special forces members hunted by assassins, is likely to start later this year and run into early 2010.)

The biggest independent hit of the last year — Summit Entertainment’s Twilight — was still the talk of the town and Summit International did a roaring trade on the sequel, New Moon, which is being directed by Chris Weitz. Summit buyers gave two rounds of applause at a reception on Tuesday last week when footage from the new film was screened. And in a climate where many buyers are trying to renegotiate existing contracts or delay payment, Summit’s franchise keeps its buyers on their toes, the tacit understanding being that you need to pay up or you might not get the first or second sequel.

Summit also scored deals on another film it was pre-selling, romantic drama Remember Me also starring Twilight and New Moon sensation Robert Pattinson, suggesting that it is starting up a Pattinson franchise business.

Other hot titles included Kevin Macdonald’s Roman Britain epic The Eagle Of The Ninth, which was virtually sold out by Focus Features International. IM Global diversified its slate and sold out its grindhouse homage Bitch Slap, closing deals with Momentum in the UK, and Splendid in Germany, among many others.

Meanwhile The Weinstein Company’s David Glasser was close to finalising key sales in Germany, France, Spain and South Korea on David O Russell’s upcoming boxing drama The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale.

Paramount Vantage International finished sales on Breck Eisner’s thriller The Crazies and Neil Jordan’s Ondine, starring Colin Farrell, and Bold Films did good business on Joe Dante’s 3D thriller The Hole. Odd Lot International enjoyed a good Cannes on the back of John Cameron Mitchell’s drama Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart and Myriad Pictures’ Tribeca pick-up Serious Moonlight was popular with international distributors. But major North American deals were thin on the ground.

IFC, hungry as ever to fill its video-on-demand pipeline, swooped on Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist and Ken Loach’s crowd-pleaser Looking For Eric, as buyers continued to circle Andrea Arnold’s acclaimed Fish Tank, sold by ContentFilm, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother and Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About The Persian Cats, which Wild Bunch is selling.

All, however, were wary of overpaying, and many balked at the asking price for A Prophet (understood to be $1m-$2m), arguing that, for all its good reviews, it is still a 150-minute French-language prison drama. Sony Pictures Classics finally moved in, picking up North American, Latin American and Australian rights among others.

SPC came into Cannes with two heavyweight pre-buys under its belt — Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel And Igor Stravinsky. And Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad’s as yet unnamed US distribution venture was announced as the US distributor for Jane Campion’s well-liked Bright Star, having paid a reported $3m.

But while the artistic qualities of this year’s Competition films seem beyond doubt, the nature of their commercial appeal dictated the pace and level of business. “The word for the US buyers’ market here would be ‘dismal’,” one prominent executive said. “If last year’s high grosser from Cannes was The Class at $3.7m in the North America, I’d say there’s no film this year that could do that.”

Meanwhile, Oscilloscope Laboratories bought US rights to Michel Gondry’s documentary The Thorn In The Heart which played in Special Screenings.

As expected, Japan, Spain, Italy, South Korea and Russia — which was buying aggressively — were all tricky for sellers, although business was solid on real projects. Like their North American counterparts, leading international sales agents including Wild Bunch, Media Asia Distribution, HanWay Films and Icon International fared well.

Strong UK titles included WestEnd Films’ Chatroom, HanWay’s Black Death and Icon’s Oranges And Sunshine. Thriller Chatroom is the English-language debut of Japanese director Hideo Nataka and stars a cast of up-and-coming UK actors including Aaron Johnson and 28 Weeks Later’s Imogen Poots. Christopher Smith’s Black Death is a medieval murder mystery now in production in Germany and starring Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne, while Oranges And Sunshine stars Emily Watson as the real-life campaigner who fought to uncover the scandal of the forced migration of UK children to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.

“The market has been slower than last year, with less pre-set meetings and walk-ins,” said Fred Tsui of Media Asia, which did good business on Peter Chan’s The Warlords, starring Jet Li, and Lu Chuan’s drama about the Nanking massacre, City Of Life And Death. “But the quality of the meetings remains high. Overall, it’s been quite satisfactory for us.”

Nicolas Brigaud-Robert of Films Distribution said business was “in line with expectations”, while Ealing Studios International head of sales Natalie Brenner added: “There have been none of the time-waster meetings and the recession has weeded out all the chancers. It’s all about product.”

Contraction and partnership were other bywords at Cannes. Two French movie powerhouses UGC and TF1 announced they are looking to merge their international divisions. If the deal goes through, UGC will handle French distribution of its own and TF1’s films while TF1 will sell UGC productions as well as its own acquisitions. TF1’s French distribution arm TFM, originally created with Weinstein-era Miramax Films, will cease its theatrical activity. Meanwhile two smaller sales outfits, the US’s Regent Worldwide and CineTel Films, fused their sales activities, and rumours abounded that other closures and alliances were on the way.

Competition deals

A Prophet (Celluloid Dreams)
US (SPC); Spain (Alta); UK (Optimum)

The White Ribbon (Les Films du Losange)
US (SPC); UK (Artificial Eye); Spain (Golem);
Greece (Rosebud); Taiwan (Swallow Wing)

Looking For Eric (Wild Bunch)
US (IFC); Germany (Delphi Filmverleih); Spain (Alta Films)

Antichrist (TrustNordisk)
US (IFC); UK (Artificial Eye)

Bright Star (Pathé)
US (Bill Pohlad and Bob Berney); Spain (Vertigo Films)

Thirst (CJ Ent)
Germany (MFA); Spain (Lolafilm); Hong Kong (EDKO); Australia (Madman Ent); Turkey (Avsar Film); Brazil (Paris Filmes); former Yugoslavia (Discovery); Portugal (Ecofilmes)

Vengeance (Kinology)
Germany (Koch Media)

Fish Tank (ContentFilm)
Spain (Alta); France (MK2)