Doing the Continental at Cannes

European films take center stage at this year's festival -- not just in the competition but also in behind-the-scenes dealmaking

By Christina Passariello

Poor Harvey Weinstein. This year's Cannes Film Festival isn't as much fun as usual for the CEO of Miramax Films. It's the first time in 20 years that Miramax hasn't had a picture in the official selection.

So what's a movie mogul to do? Well, at this year's festival, he has been watching other people's movies, although, he scoffs, most are so boring that he brings a pillow and blanket to catch a nap. "Everything is a French film," says the burly Weinstein, referring to the 10 out of 20 films in the competition with French financing. "I mean, please!"

Actually, Weinstein isn't the only one feeling left out -- the Asian, African, and Middle Eastern contingents have been griping that they, too, feel sidelined. Festival insiders insist the selection process isn't political. Critic Philippe Rouyer told Variety, "The choices in every section of Cannes are made by people who love cinema and not by politicians and diplomats."


  If that's true, then Europeans have to be the world's biggest movie lovers. The Continent's film industry is dominating the festival, not just in the competition but also at the market where producers pitch movies to distributors. As the European Union prepares for its expansion to 25 countries next year, production houses across Europe are learning to use Cannes to strike alliances and pool their resources.

The 10-day gala kicked off with a meeting of 13 European culture ministers on May 15. Representing France, Jean-Jacques Aillagon stressed the importance of co-productions, a role his country has taken seriously by funding a wide range of European movies. With these joint ventures, promoted by European film board Cineuropa, films from countries with minimal film budgets, such as Portugal, which produced less than 10 films last year, can get off the ground.

The idea is to seal as many movie production and distribution deals as possible. France and Italy set the pace on May 17 by signing just such a co-production and distribution agreement between powerhouses RAI Cinema and EuropaCorp through 2005. Italy's RAI, which estimates it will pour $7 million to $10 million into the accord, has already agreed to distribute six French titles including Fanfan la Tulipe, starring Penelope Cruz.

"This is not just a business matter," EuropaCorp's Pierre-Ange Le Pogam told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's about a common passion to make movies that are an alternative to Hollywood."


  Standing up to Tinseltown also requires help at the governmental level, since most European films are partially state-financed. Italian and Spanish representatives announced on May 21 that they'll pony up funding to help distribute more European films for screening on the Continent.

The deals won't be limited to Old Europe, either. The countries that once were in the Communist East European bloc are trying to get in on the action. Case in point: Hungary, which has a co-production in the festival this year. Other Eastern European countries are signing on to projects after offering tax breaks to film companies willing to make movies in their country. One notable example is Miramax's Cold Mountain, an American, British, Luxembourg, and Romanian production that was filmed entirely in Romania.

Even if its films aren't on Cannes' big screen, Hollywood is guarding its place in the Riviera limelight. The biggest bashes during the festival have been for Tinseltown flicks. Arnold Schwarzenegger strutted out of a mockup set for T3, the new Terminator movie out this summer. Box-office-buster The Matrix Reloaded debuted at the festival and the stars partied afterwards. Europe's films may be making it to the screen more easily, but they still don't have Hollywood-size party budgets.

BusinessWeek Paris bureau editorial assistant Passariello made the pilgrimage to Cannes

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