Almost every year in the weeks leading up to Cannes, there's a big, star-driven movie in need of a distributor that plays for buyers in Los Angeles in the hope of scoring a deal (last year it was the Terry Gilliam/Heath Ledger fantasy "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"). There are few things tougher than a celebrity-laden film coming into Cannes without a studio backer; the film doesn't get the same publicity muscle, and the anxiety that comes with putting a film's fate in the hands of a fickle festival audience can be a little tough for producers to bear.
This year's candidate is "Fair Game," in which Sean Penn plays former Bush administration attaché Joseph Wilson, who, after writing an op-ed piece critical of the Bush administration, found his wife Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) outed as a CIA agent. The movie takes director Doug Liman in a more serious direction than he's been taken in nearly of his any other films ("The Bourne Identity," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," etc.).
Tuesday night, CAA, which is selling domestic rights -- and also packaged, located financing for and represents almost everyone associated with the movie (including Wilson and Plame) -- hosted a screening for buyers. Top executives from nearly every major specialty division and mini-major turned out (Harvey Weinstein was among those in attendance, for a movie that could well be a kind of awards-y picture he specialized in back in the day), along with representatives from a few studios. Several distributors are said to be interested, and there could well be a deal in place before the film masses descend on the south of France.
We talked to a number of buyers who were at the screening, nearly all of whom agreed the movie was well made but also came with distinct marketing challenges. Given its political themes, it's the kind of film that will go over like gangbusters in Cannes, they said, but its larger audience remains a question mark. Some buyers pointed out that Liman's movie could face some of the same questions that Oliver Stone's "W." did in 2008 -- namely, do audiences want to relive a difficult chapter in American history, one in which much of the public felt misled?
That's especially true here given that Sean Penn isn't inhabiting the kind of transformative role he did with, say, Harvey Milk, but instead one who talks earnestly about the absence of WMD and sounds a lot like, well, Sean Penn.
Buyers tend to talk down a film's commercial prospects after a distributor screening because they don't want to work up the price. Still, there are reasons to take their concerns seriously. "Green Zone," a movie with a less polarizing star in Matt Damon and more of a thriller/action conceit, was a box-office flop for a big studio. Then again, at the right price, and with a campaign built around awards and critical praise, "Fair Game" could find its niche. And not just among the French.
--Steven Zeitchik and John Horn
Photo: Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Credit: River Road Entertainment