A phrase you will hear often at Cannes is: “Let me run the numbers.”
The commercial underbelly of the Cannes Film Festival is a non-stop frenzy of deal-making in luxury hotels along the Croisette promenade and aboard yachts moored offshore. Films are pitched with various ingredients — a director, a script, a few stars — as agents and talent pursue international investors and domestic distributors to bankroll their movies.
For director James Toback, any claims about the running of “the numbers” — of treating moviemaking as an analytical science — is blatant “pseudo research.”
“This is where you really need, desperately, a sense of your own value,” Toback said in a recent interview. “A sense of your own value as a person and an artist.”
A year ago, Toback swam through Cannes’ sprawling marketplace with cameras and Alec Baldwin in tow, documenting the painful, sometimes humiliating process of trying to get a movie funded at Cannes. He and Baldwin returned to the Cote d’Azur festival on Tuesday to premiere the product of that shooting, “Seduced and Abandoned.”
Even for Toback, a veteran director whose career has ranged from his 1974 debut “The Gambler” to the 2008 Mike Tyson documentary “Tyson,” and Baldwin — both of whom know well the ways of Hollywood — witnessing today’s financing process was a sobering experience.
“It’s worse than I thought,” says Toback. “It’s tougher than I thought. The reasons not to do [a movie] are more blatant. And also the flip-of-the-coin idiocy with which decisions are made. There is a pretence of coherent value. There’s a kind of Ponzi scheme at work, where people like to believe that they’re acting from some sort of covert intelligence.”
Baldwin, who has contemplating reentering the film business full-time following his run on the successful NBC TV comedy series “30 Rock,” also finds the current film business daunting.
“The movie business is tough, and it’s tougher now than ever,” he said sitting on a terrace off the Palais, the centre of the festival. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make another movie again.”
The Cannes market has grown to be the world’s largest for the buying and selling movie projects. For decades, it’s been standard practice to begin bankrolling a film by first selling international distribution rights. In recent years, Hollywood studios have focused increasingly on major blockbusters with enormous marketing budgets, leaving less room for mid-budget dramas.
“Seduced and Abandoned,” which HBO picked up ahead of its Cannes premiere, begins with a quote attributed to the late director Orson Welles: that 95 per cent of his life is spent trying to raise money for movies, and 5 percent is actually making them.
“It’s no way to live,” said Toback.
To capture the reality of the process, Toback and Baldwin (“the Ed McMahon to his Johnny Carson,” says Baldwin) last year went around Cannes pitching a film, to be directed by Toback and to star Baldwin and Neve Campbell.
They proposed a version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s notorious “Last Tango in Paris,” to be titled “Last Tango in Tikrit” that would feature the same “exploratory sex” of the 1972 Marlon Brando original. (Although many later assumed the project was charade for the documentary, Toback insists he still hopes to make it.)
They set out hoping to make the film for $15 million (Dh55 million) to $20 million, but most people they interviewed tell them it’s more likely a $3-5 million project. (“I’m too old for that,” says Toback.)
It would be better, too, if they could get a bigger-name actress, they were told. One financier suggested that Baldwin go back to submarine films like “The Hunt for Red October.” Another called him a “TV actor.”
“The film has to be two things,” says Baldwin. “It has to be Jimmy and I humbling ourselves trying to sell a movie here - and it is humbling. And then some sort of homage to Cannes.”
It also pays homage to movies in general. Interviewed about their irrational love of film are Francis Ford Coppola (who says cinema is “given by the gods”), Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Ryan Gosling, Bertolucci and Cannes director Thierry Fremaux. They’re all there to make a case for what Toback calls “the mysterious, intuitive process” of moviemaking.
“Seduced and Abandoned” takes on an elegiac tone of nostalgia — complete with a booming score by the late Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich — for the older, more daring days of the movie business.
Shot in a blitz at Cannes, Toback had to figure out much of the film once he got home. They did additional shooting to tie things together after being rejected from the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
But Toback says he can’t imagine having a better time making a film. Baldwin says it was “exhilarating.”
“I would just assume go make more documentaries like this with Jimmy,” says Baldwin, who also recently signed on as producer of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a documentary about his “30 Rock” co-star. “Let’s take some iconic tableau in society - the Super Bowl, a murder trial . the Country Music Awards. We’ll think of something that’s just a world unto itself and go and make a documentary.”
“We’ll see,” he adds with a grin. “He and I have some ideas.”