The deals flowed on the Croisette. Now the focus is on buyers to deliver viable distribution results.

High deal volume, a compelling roster of commercial must-haves and the return of a competitive US marketplace coupled with a renewed appetite for focused Japanese pre-buys were among the highlights of the most vibrant Cannes market in recent memory.

A very strong festival selection buoyed spirits and sparked the customary flow of arthouse deals, however it was the aggressive response to a raft of studio-level product from buyers eager to fill 2012 slots that energised the independent sector. Hopes are high heading into the relative lull of summer as the industry strives to maintain momentum at Toronto and the AFM.

US sellers were on the Croisette touting at least four projects believed to be in the $100m range: Summit International’s Pompeii 3D from Constantin, Focus Features International’s Cloud Atlas, FilmNation’s The Brothers Grimm: Snow White from Relativity and Ender’s Game from Sierra/Affinity.

Buyers responded enthusiastically despite high prices and all four projects are understood to have near sold out. Acquisition executives also flocked to Exclusive Films International’s Jake Gyllenhaal police thriller End Of Watch; IM Global’s broadest ever slate led by action titles The Last Days Of American Crime and Welcome To The Punch plus James Wan horror project Spectre; as well as Inferno’s Stephenie Meyer sci-fi The Host and Mandate Pictures’ comedy Great Hope Springs sold by Lionsgate.

‘Prices were back to their 2008 levels. Japan is back in business’

Eve Schoukroun, WestEnd Films

Now, away from the euphoria of a festival, buyers must knuckle down and plan viable distribution models. The imperative applies to winners, too: Fox Searchlight has its work cut out for it with this year’s divisive Palme d’Or winner The Tree Of Life, which the distributor acquired in 2010. The challenge to arthouse distribution endures, and it will be worth watching how audiences weaned on studio blancmange will respond to the edgier commercial fare.

An influx of production capital has infused the independent business with hope — now it is incumbent on the successful buyers to execute in their territories and in so doing avoid a repeat of the bloated failures of several years ago that led to the mass exodus of the US hedge funds.

US buyers were notably engaged in the big-game hunt, as illustrated by several pre-Cannes buys announced during the festival. FilmDistrict moved on Rian Johnson’s sci-fi opus Looper and romantic comedy Playing The Field, while Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road backed by the AMC and Regal Theatres chains has committed to a $25m p&a spend and 2,000-theatre autumn release on maiden title The Killer Elite starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro.

All eyes will be on these two distributors, as well as the ongoing business of more familiar players such as The Weinstein Company, Summit and Relativity. FilmDistrict is the keeper of a rapidly growing slate and has got off to a flying start at the box office this year with Insidious and Soul Surfer. The company’s goal of trading in commercial fare will be put to the test in the gladiatorial US distribution arena in the coming months. The Open Road venture marks the most overt bid yet by exhibitors to determine their own fate and the company’s emergence is particularly timely given the current fears over premium-VoD.

New US producer-financier Red Granite Pictures staffed by Danny Dimbort and several other key executives from Millennium/Nu Image is on board The Wolf Of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio, which was previously set up at Warner Bros. Megan Ellison’s financier Annapurna Films — which like Steve Rales’ Indian Paintbrush and Mickey Liddell in the US has been investing heavily in distribution — stirred the pot by reviving the Terminator franchise and closing a US deal with The Weinstein Company on John Hillcoat’s The Wettest County.

Among the big international sales hits on the Croisette were Wild Bunch’s Competition treat The Artist, Pathé’s Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, Gaumont’s out-of-competition Nicolas Sarkozy film The Conquest, Independent’s Competition drama We Need To Talk About Kevin which went to Oscilloscope for North America, WestEnd’s Competition entry Footnote, K5 International’s submarine supernatural thriller Phantom and Protagonist’s Snowtown from Critics’ Week.

Japan bounces back

“Prices were back to their 2008 levels,” says WestEnd managing director Eve Schoukroun. “Japan’s back in business. In Berlin only one or two Japanese companies were pre-buying but that’s changed. Spain is still a problem, a victim of its poor DVD sales, and Eastern Europe did strong business but only for commercial projects. The prestige titles are harder to sell in that region than before.

“Overall it’s been a very strong market. Buyers were saying there was some very strong product but that they were shocked by the prices. A lot baulked. For us, we were delighted by our sales on Footnote and Love Bite, both of which were commercial hits.”

“The market has been very, very good,” adds Alex Walton, president of sales and distribution at Exclusive Films. “We virtually sold out on End Of Watch and Snitch because they were commercial, fresh and original and give the buyers a clear marketing hook.”

Will Machin of the new Ealing Metro International reports strong sales on Nina, Trap For Cinderella, Very GoodGirls and Jack Black comedy Bailout. “It was a very competitive environment and it was exciting to be here and to see all the distributors being optimistic and buoyant and engaged with all the movies,” Machin says. “There has been a perfect storm of product and funding.”

Momentum Pictures also snapped up titles. “We built a very solid slate which we will roll out across the three Alliance territories [including Canada and Spain],” says acquisitions head Robert Walak.

‘A few territories are growing for Asian titles - there are more players in the US, UK and Germany. We’ve seen some East European territories become quite active’

Carrie Wong, Golden Network Asia

Olivier Albou of French sales company Other Angle, in Cannes with the third entry in its Would I Lie To You comedy franchise, adds: “We believe the crisis is coming to an end and that when we have the right product, there are people to buy it.”

Carl Clifton of K5 International did well with Phantom and Vehicle 19 and says Cannes had been “the best market for a long time”, adding: “The buyers have been acquiring again and even pre-buying quite aggressively.”

Lionsgate UK’s Zygi Kamasa, who pre-bought Great Expectations from HanWay among other projects, says: “There are definitely more and bigger projects here. It does seem the sellers are bringing more commercial movies… Five years ago everyone concentrated on specialty; no-one realised specialty doesn’t make money.”

By and large Asian sellers agree that Japanese acquisitions executives returned in force and trained their sights on tentpole or genre-driven product, while across the board buyers remained cautious about arthouse films.

Carrie Wong, managing director of Golden Network Asia, said: “A few territories are growing for Asian titles — there are more players in the US, UK and Germany buying Asian films and we’ve seen some East European territories become quite active. VoD is going up in some of these territories and Blu-ray is strong in Germany.”