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Cannes 2009: As Terry Gilliam goes, so does the festival

May 16, 2009 |  9:23 am

Not that long ago, American distributors went to film festivals -- Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Telluride -- looking for reasons to buy a movie. These days, as the business has grown much tougher with higher-than-ever profit expectations, they almost seem more interested in finding reasons not to acquire a film. For proof, consider the status of director Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

At first glance, the movie would appear to have numerous built-in sales hooks, most notably that it was the last film of actor Heath Ledger, who died of a drug overdose during its filming. Because Ledger was unable to complete the film, a trio of prominent actors stepped in to finish his role: Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.

Those A-list names -- and the mystique of the last performance of the Oscar-winning "Dark Knight" co-star -- would seem to create enough publicity to drum up some audience interest; there's a fan website tracking the film's history and posting images from the film. Gilliam, who directed the critics' darling "Brazil" but also the flop "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," is not some direct-to-video hack. On top of all that, the film was selected to play out of competition at this year's Cannes festival, where it will be shown Friday night.

But U.S. buyers, who were shown the movie in a screening at the Directors Guild of America theater in Los Angeles a week before the festival started, so far have been quite cool on the movie. Interviews with half a dozen American distributors here revealed a consistent reaction: Whatever publicity Ledger's death may generate for "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," the film itself is too oblique to stand on its own. The buyers said they were both dazzled and puzzled by some of Gilliam's choices, and though they found much to admire, it wasn't enough to tip the scales. 

John Sloss, the lawyer and sales agent who is selling the film in Cannes, said he was confident that the film would find a distributor, and that the potential buyers who are so far passing on the film might not be the right distributors for it in any case. But as the festival and concurrent market enter their fourth full day with no new major sales deals announced, it's starting to look as if the buyers aren't yet ready to start shopping.

-- John Horn

  

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