Sweet smell of excess

In Cannes, everybody’s got an offer you can't refuse

Robert Miller June 27 1977

Sweet smell of excess

In Cannes, everybody’s got an offer you can't refuse

Robert Miller June 27 1977

Sweet smell of excess


In Cannes, everybody’s got an offer you can't refuse

Robert Miller

Watching the hustlers, hopefuls, has-beens and hookers prowl the busy terrace of the Carlton Hotel, you get the idea that maybe they ought to spell it “The Con (almost rhymes with Cannes) Film Festival.” It’s not just that nearly everyone on the terrace is trying to screw someone else. Or that in the dog-eat -filet mignon world of the movies even a neophyte producer is sufficiently, predatory to make the most hardened lady of the evening look like a timid bunny. No, it should be the Con Film Festival because essentially it’s a convention of people dedicated to the idea, long dear to Hollywood, that you can make something very big out of very little, and occasionally out of nothing at all—the basis for every confidence game ever played.

To be sure, most of the 40,000 visitors who flock to Cannes for the festival every May are either film buffs who want to watch movies, or celebrity collectors, content to ogle the great stars as they struggle through mobs of cursing paparazzi. (When Sophia Loren emerged from a limousine and battled her way into the Carlton lobby one afternoon, the photographers went into such a frenzy that fistfights broke out. The imperturbable hotel staff later had to mop up blood from the tiled floor.) Yes, Cannes is movies, glamour, photographers and pneumatic would-be starlets bouncing topless along the beach. But the real point of this two-week-long “Evening In Byzantium,” as Irwin Shaw called it, is deals. Deals for movies already made, yet to be made, never to be made. Distribution deals, foreign sales deals, finance deals, tax deals, co-production deals: the lifeblood of an industry that seems perpetually in need of transfusion.

During the festival, the Carlton terrace becomes a sort of champagne-splashed bourse where the traders are all named Sam or Irving or Morty and where the commodities exchanged are celluloid and gossamer, both of which are flimsy and transparent, like the movie business itself. Everyone is hoping to find or flog another Rocky, another Easy Rider, another American Graffiti and thereby hit a jackpot big enough to pay for a yacht like the one skipper Robert Altman (Nashville, Three Women, etc.) and mates Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall and Lauren Hutton have swinging at anchor, 100 yards offshore. Very occasionally, someone does hit the

jackpot, which is why the wheeler-dealers keep coming back to Cannes and which is why, this year, there was such a large Canadian delegation. Canada has sort of sneaked up on major league status in the movie world, and if the oglers along the Croisette (the palm-lined road separating the Mediterranean from the strip of luxury hotels) don’t know it yet, the barracudas on the Carlton terrace do. There’s money in Canada. A lot of money. Canadians pay more than $225 million a year to see movies. Toronto is the number one movie town in the world, in terms of box-office dollars per capita. Canadian tax laws, designed to

stimulate a fledgling feature film industry, offer investors tremendous incentives. So Canadians who want to deal, have to come to Cannes.

“I really don’t know,” chuckled Bill Marshall, who knew perfectly well, “what I’m going to do with all this money we’re going to make.” It was approaching midnight in the cavernous, overly lit municipal casino and Marshall was lingering over a second bottle of Dom Perignon ’65. He was celebrating two substantial achievements: actually managing to order and receive a plate of bacon and eggs in France, and, nearly as impressive, having made one of

the biggest splashes in Cannes with one of the smallest movies. Marshall used to be top kick in the office of Toronto Mayor David Crombie. But he has always been more interested in movies than in politics and is co-producer, with Henk Van der Kolk, of Outrageous, a made-in-Toronto feature that cost only $167,000. In today’s movie market that sort of budget would be little more than tip money for most productions.

All day there’d been good news. Charles Champlin, the important critic from the Los Angeles Times, had seen Outrageous (which had its world premiere in Cannes but which was not entered in competition, common practice for new movies in search of foreign sales and distribution arrangements) and had pronounced it one of the two or three best films he’d seen during his trip. Foreign distributors were starting to knock on the door of Marshall’s vast corner suite in the Carlton. Outrageous had been invited to no fewer than seven other festivals, including the big ones in Berlin and Edinburgh. Even the people from Cin-

ema Canada, with whom Marshall and his associates had been gently feuding, were starting to be nice. So it was little wonder that Marshall, resplendent in velvet dinner jacket with a silver star (it reads: “Marshall”) on the lapel, was in an expansive mood. “It’s just wonderful,” he grinned for perhaps the fifth time, as Shelley Winters lurched by and Telly Savalas made another $10,000 at baccarat. “It’s just wonderful.”

Considering the film’s subject matter— drag queens, gay bars, a platonic love affair between a female impersonator and a schizoid girl who turns nymphomaniac at the sight of a cab driver (any cab driver)— and the relative inexperience of its principals, Outrageous seemed an unlikely winner. But Marshall and his partners went to Cannes understanding an essential truth about the place: a lot of pizzazz, skillfully presented, can leave even the best-made films struggling to keep up, if they’re under-promoted. For days, Toronto lawyer Murray “Dusty” Cohi, a bearded bon vi-

While the barracudas circulated on the Carlton terrace, the starlets did their utmost to cause a stir on the beach. Every few minutes Edy Williams (who used to be Mrs. Russ Meyer, king of the soft-core pornographers) would jump out of her clothes and wiggle for the paparazzi in the hope of getting some publicity for a film called Dive. But with everyone on the Riviera, except for the waiters and the beach-chair pensioners, going topless these days, the actresses had stiff competition from the secretaries and stewardesses who were in Cannes to worship the sun, not the stars. Indeed, with such hard-core epics as Danish Escort Girls and Captain Lust, billed as the “first X-rated swashbuckler,” showing every day, boobs on the beach were far less titillating than they used to be. Boring, even.

veur who is listed in the Outrageous credits as “Accomplice” and who had taken on the task of selling the film, had been encamped on the Carlton terrace, buying drinks, slapping backs, courting critics, wooing distributors and handing out bumph.

Cohl, who’s been going to Cannes for a decade and who finally had a legitimate reason to be there, probably signed more bar tabs in two weeks than the late Toots Shor used to in two months. He and his colleagues paraded around in Toronto Maple Leaf sweaters, Blue Jay hats, Argonaut Tshirts. They handed out nylon windcheaters emblazoned with the Outrageous logo and were delighted when nine days of wet weather made the jackets the most sought-after item along the Croisette. They purchased a front-page blurb for their film every day in Screen International’s special Cannes editions. Toronto actress Hollis McLaren, who plays the schizoid girl and who had parts in four other Canadian films shown at Cannes, was along for interviews. The male lead, Craig Russell, a Kitchener, Ontario, native who works steadily on the U.S. gay club circuit, wasn’t there. “He might go a little crazy on us,” explained Marshall. But Mayor Crombie and his wife, Shirley, closed off their European holiday by attending, thereby giving New York distributor Jerry Rappoport a chance to practise his joke: “Is it mayor or Meyer?” Net result: Outrageous captured more ink and caused more gossip than the rest of the Canadian films combined.

“You have to hand it to Dusty,” said David Perlmutter, president of the Canadian Association of Motion Picture Producers, “he has really done a great job with the pizzazz, and that’s what Canadian movies need. Better promotion.” Laughed Hollywood screenwriter Robert Kaufman (Divorce American Style, Getting Straight, Freebie And The Bean)'. “You’d think that these guys had made Gone With The Wind.”

The big stars, of course, stayed out of sight as much as possible—shunning the Carlton in favor of private villas or the se-

eluded, luxurious Hôtel du Cap at Antibes. There, the Faye Dunaways, Charles Bronsons, Jill Irelands, Anthony Quinns etc. whiled away the afternoons over long drinks and short naps, steeling themselves for periodic obligatory sorties into Cannes to attend a movie at the Palais des Festivals or a studio cocktail party at the Café Félix.

According to veterans of the festival, Cannes has lost a lot of its old-time glamour. Such stars as Paul Newman, who was nearly torn to pieces by screaming fans one year, have vowed never to return. Princess Grace of Monaco, who lives just down the street, made one brief appearance on behalf of a children’s charity and then sprinted back to the security of her palace as fast as she decently could.

If anything, the critics have become the most important people at film festivals because the barracudas know that a rave from Rex Reed is more valuable than a wave from Roger (007) Moore. In fact, Reed, a precious young man who writes well and who can earn up to $5,000 for a single day’s round of public appearances, was one of the biggest stars along the Croisette. En route to Cannes, he was stricken by a painful kidney-stone attack and his ailment was front-page news.

John Simon of New York magazine, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (the only film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize), Champlin of the L.A. Times, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker and, of course, Reed were constantly pursued, flattered and entertained by producers, directors and distributors. To get one or more of the big critics to a screening was a cause for Dorn Perignon all around.

Naturally, movie people would rather die of thirst than order vin ordinaire. Rich or broke, they are different from the rest of us. Except at the very summit of talent or viciousness, they live in and are resigned to a boom-or-bust environment. The important thing is to disguise the lean times with stunning displays of conspicuous consumption. The industry has super-sensitive antennae and can sniff out a loser at 1,000 paces, so no one dares let down his front, at least not until American Express closes in for the kill. The wheeler-dealers at Cannes

would have stayed home rather than fly there any way but first-class. They’d sooner not know the time than wear anything less expensive than a Piaget. Unless they could flash a jewel-encrusted Dupont, they wouldn’t smoke. It was not, in other words, your average economy-class, Timex, flickof-the-Bic crowd.

The Carlton had its full share of desperadoes, of progressively worried looking people who had failed to connect on a deal and who were dreading the day when room-service would have to be settled. “With three or four days to go, you can see the panic set in,” said Jerry Rappoport, who was definitely not among the worried.

For every legitimate buyer or writer or producer at Cannes there were 100 outsiders, trying to crack the golden circle. They were the people like Steve, an unmistakable Californian—blond, bronzed, tall, good enough to play Davis Cup. now hoping to hustle a tennis game to help defray his expenses—and his partner Maurey, dark, quick-eyed, short. Steve and Maurey spent several days wandering around with a movie they’d made under one arm (a porno flick called Coming Attractions) and a script for a science-fiction feature under the other, trying in vain to get someone to look at either.

Unless one was connected, or well financed, there seemed little point in being at Cannes. Yet there they were. Why? “Because,” explained David Novek of Canada’s National Film Board, a Cannes veteran, “this is the only place where you can find people from every facet of the industry. Cannes is a huge marketplace. You simply have to come here, if you hope to do

business.” Larry Friedricks, an independent sales agent from New York, put it this way: “The value of Cannes? Well, even in the worst year there’s never been a time when I’ve failed to pick up at least five times my expenses. You can do business here, but you have to know who to do it with.”

Besides the Outrageous mob, there were a lot of Canadians in Cannes to do business or simply to stay visible. Cinema Canada, which comes under the aegis*of Secretary of State John Roberts, was there in style if not in substance. So was the National Film Board, which had three movies entered in competition: J. A. Martin, photographe, a French-language feature hailed as exquisite by the critics (Quebec’s Monique Mercure shared the best-actress award with Shelley Duvall); One Man, an aimed-attelevision feature about a Montreal reporter, which starred Len Cariou, a man who has become a hot property since signing to make A Little Night Music with Elizabeth Taylor; and Ethnocide, a Mexican-Canadian co-production.

Although it didn’t have a reporter covering the festival itself, The Toronto Star's presence was felt through two sister subsidiaries of Torstar Corp. Both Harlequin Enterprises, the publishers of romantic fiction who have dipped a toe in the movie business with a feature entitled Leopard In The Snow (a romance, of course), and Nielsen-Ferns, Inc., the Toronto film house recently taken over by Torstar, were represented by top executives and were heavy advertisers in the trade press. The Harlequin master plan—to produce films aimed at the same market, mainly housewives, that gobbles up its books, possibly by restricting screenings to matinees, and thereby developing a whole new movie audience—had the American professionals particularly fascinated. And, of course, with Torstar’s millions suddenly behind it, Richard Nielsen’s firm was starting to stride toward the big time. Currently, Nielsen-Fems has $22 million worth of projects underway, including feature films and television programs.

One of the chief reasons why Canada has become a hotbed of movie-making is that Ottawa wants it to happen. Aside from the federal government’s much criticized Canadian Film Development Corporation, which helps fund projects deemed worthy, Ottawa allows tax write off's for investors in certain films. Under the law, if a film qualifies, a Canadian can deduct 100% of his investment from his income tax, which means that the downside risk is nil. The profits from a cheaply made hit movie can be enormous. American Graffiti, for example, was made for only $860,000 and the big bosses at Universal hated it so much they wanted to burn it. They were shamed out of such drastic action by superstar director Francis Ford Coppola who offered to buy it outright. The studio will be forever grateful to him, since Graffiti

has already grossed more than $70 million. Because of Ottawa’s generosity, there is tremendous incentive for Canadian businessmen to take a flyer in the movies with money they’d otherwise simply have to pay in taxes. Explains David Perlmutter: “They’ve pretty well blocked all the tax loopholes in Canada except for real estate, oil and gas, and films. I guess it’s pretty obvious that those are the areas where the government wants things to happen.”

One of the things that Ottawa presumably didn’t want to happen, though, happened anyway: a bitter row erupted at Cannes between Bill Marshall & Co., who in addition to Outrageous were promoting their second Festival of Festivals (scheduled for Toronto in September), and Serge Losique, a Montreal film buff who, with Mayor Jean Drapeau’s blessing, is promoting the World Film Festival of Canada to be held in August. Both the Toronto and Montreal festivals are counting on substantial federal support in the way of grants from the film Festivals Bureau. Each is to get $50,000, a decision that left Marshall livid. Last year, he argued, when Toronto asked for a major grant, it was told that its festival was an experiment and would have to make do with limited funding ($19,500). Marshall & Co. went ahead anyway with the Festival of Festivals, attracted large crowds and good movies but,

according to all reports, took a severe financial beating. This year, they felt, they were established and could count on much more help from Ottawa, as indeed they could. But Ottawa decided to give Losique the same assistance, even though he’d yet to stage such an event. Losique and Marshall have been feuding, long-range, ever since Losique wrote and distributed a letter scathingly critical of the Toronto operation. When both turned up in Cannes, a row was inevitable.

Standing on the roof of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, Losique talked of his love for movies and his suspicion of “people who have their headquarters in the Toronto Hilton, a luxury hotel, and call themselves a nonprofit cultural organization ... I don’t attack anyone, but I say you must be impassioned with love for the cinema, not just for one day but for all of your life.” His festival had been years in the planning, he said, and would be “a modest, low-key affair.” Besides, he thought, in future years it might move around the country—perhaps to Banff or Winnipeg or “maybe even Toronto.”

Marshall was less equivocal. The Losique festival, he declared, was sabotaging Toronto’s, coming in belatedly at an earlier date, siphoning off sponsor support and, most important, getting federal funds “simply because it’s French. I’m getting pretty sick of that.” When Jean Lefebvre, head of Cinema Canada, dropped by Marshall’s suite to congratulate him on Out-

rageous, Marshall let him have it with both barrels. Lefebvre politely insisted that Losique was eminently qualified to hold a festival and that Ottawa had full confidence in him. But in the next breath, Lefebvre sighed: “I. . . I am in charge of a terrible, terrible mess. The festival business is a mess everywhere . . . We knew this [the Montreal-Toronto feud] was going to come to a head at Cannes.” Retorted Marshall: “Well, you people wanted a worldclass festival in Canada. We’ve given you one. Now you want two. The way 1 feel right now I’m tempted to just turn the whole thing over to you and say,‘Here it is. You try to run it.’ ” Later, though, Marshall & Co. cooled down somewhat. Both festivals will be held. It is, to be sure, the Canadian way.

The American way, as in all things, is slightly different. When it comes to packaging a movie, the American pros are in a class by themselves. While a Canadian writer might wander around for years polishing a script but having no idea how to market it, Bob Kaufman can sell a movie off a cocktail napkin. Which he did, at Cannes. Kaufman is a top-of-the-line Hollywood screenwriter who gets upward of $150,000 a picture and who writes at least four a year. He and his wife, Robin, went to Cannes on an impulse, after having done a deal in London. “What a place,” Kaufman laughed, as he sat on the Carlton terrace and looked around. “It’s a whole new world over here. There’s at least 10 more years of people to insult. I’ve run out in Hollywood.”

Ostensibly on holiday, Kaufman contented himself for the best part of a week with gossiping about movies and telling jokes. “You know what the studio bosses think a movie is? Well, they see Michael Caine and Dustin Hoffman . . . they’re in Africa ... there’s diamonds somewhere ... a beautiful girl, captured by pygmies . . . her father’s an Israeli nuclear scientist. That’s what they think a movie is. So what if they’ve made it 50 times before? It’s a movie. Like Pom Pom Girls. That’s what they understand. The really good films have to battle to get made. It’s crazy. They’re crazy. We’re all crazy.”

As if to prove it, Kaufman became angry. one day at all the signs in Carlton lobby promoting World War Two movies. Swastikas and Iron Crosses abounded. And it was all too much for Kaufman. So he took out his pen, scratched for a few minutes on a cocktail napkin and then summoned a few people to his table. “We’re gonna make,” he says, “the little known and not quite true story of Hitler’s last desperate attempt to win the war. It’s gonna be called Dig Me A Tunnel and I’m gonna write it. The tunnel goes slightly off course and comes up in Piccadilly Circus. Only one German tank gets through, and the soldiers promptly start looting Aquascutum. ‘Hey Fritz! Grab me a 42 short!’ We’re gonna get Marty Feldman as Hitler, Cybill

Shepherd as Eva Braun, Chevy Chase as General Patton, and Alan Arkin as Albert Speer. The Germans’ll be the good guys, but they all run out of gas in the tunnel and nobody dares wake up Hitler so he can authorize more fuel.” People laugh. Heads nod. Hands are shaken. A deal is made.

Two days later, the full-page ads are in the trade press. They read: “You’ve seen The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far. Now in the great tradition of World War II, Irwin Meyer-Stephen R. Friedman-Peter Crane present Dig Me A Tunnel, the almost true story of Hitler’s desperate underground plan to invade Piccadilly Circus. By Robert Kaufman.” Within hours

people are coming up to congratulate Kaufman. “They’re crazy,” he says. “It’s a joke. But it looks like an $11 -million movie. It’s nothing.” It may be nothing, but it’s underway. In the movie business, momentum is all. “You know,” Kaufman said the next day, as already the various partners are starting to bicker over their shares of Dig Me A Tunnel, “we’re gonna make that crazy movie. It’ll probably make a ton of money.” And later still, he leans over to talk about this article. “Why don’t you start it: ‘Out from under their rocks they crawled. In from the sea they slithered. The bandits and gangsters and conmen of Cannes...’ ’’^