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Film business booms at Cannes amid flurry of deals

By Nick Vinocur and Mike Collett-White

CANNES, France (Reuters) - The business of cinema is roaring back to life at Cannes after a prolonged bout of gloom, finding renewed strength in money from China, the return of Hollywood studios and the pulling power of A-list stars.

Movie executives at the Riviera festival, which doubles as a huge market for films from around the world, say distributors are spending more freely on new projects now that a period of tight financing due to the global financial crisis has eased.

Among the signs of renewed health are the presence of artists like Kanye West and Lady Gaga at the festival's glitzy after-work parties, as well as the willingness of big studios to splash out on lavish entertainment for their customers.

Leaving austerity behind, U.S. studio Miramax has hired a fleet of speedboats to ferry executives from the Cannes film festival to a private beach at nearby Cap d'Antibes, to meet company chiefs and actor Rob Lowe, also a film investor.

"I am sensing this optimism because people are starting to realize that opportunities are growing," Mike Lang, chief executive of Miramax, the studio behind films including "Trainspotting" and "No Country For Old Men," told Reuters.

"Over the next 10 years I think you will see something much bigger than what we saw over the last 20 years," Lang added. "There are more pay TV channels, emerging markets etc, and we have not even talked about China."

He said Miramax had more than 70 new projects to tout, in addition to its existing library.

"Things are so strong in that area (library) that we've been able to talk about new product quicker than we were thinking."

Hollywood studios are leading the charge in terms of buying, with The Weinstein Co. snapping up rights to Meryl Streep's biopic on Margaret Thatcher "The Iron Lady," a French silent movie called "The Artist" and Chinese martial arts epic "Wu Xia," Variety magazine reported in its daily edition.

Amid a flurry of other deals Lionsgate Entertainment has also bought North American distribution rights for "The Hunters," a French suspense movie, while Sony Pictures Classics has bought North and Latin American rights for Israeli competition entry "Footnote."

JAPAN, MIDDLE EAST SITTING OUT

But Hollywood studios only account for a small portion of deals struck at Cannes, where hundreds of film studios from Bollywood to Puerto Rico converge to network, flog their wares and soak up the heady atmosphere.

Much of the nitty gritty action takes place under the festival's main venue in a sprawling warren of stalls where film executives advertise their latest -- movies with titles like "Dear Friend Hitler," "Supreme Champion: Vengeance is Bloody" -- and watch movies in individual booths.

Alice Coelho, a saleswoman at Bollywood studio Eros films, said interest for their top feature "Ra One" was strong and had no doubts it would find a buyer. "We are only showing a 30 second trailer but people are willing to close deals," she said.

For U.S. studio Fabrication Films, which produces small and medium budget genre films, the biggest windfall this year has come from Chinese buyers willing to snap up entire film libraries that they market online, avoiding state censorship.

"China has really exploded this year," said Miriam Elchanan, senior vice president of sales. "They're buying big -- numbers like we have never seen before ... The Internet has a lot to do with it."

However, few deals were struck with buyers from Japan, usually a big client for genre movies, or the Middle East, where political instability has induced caution on the part of potential buyers, she added.

"The Middle East is a disaster ... When you have all this unrest, that market becomes very difficult," she said, adding: "The buyers are here, but they are not buying."

Some customers steer clear of movies altogether. "In Turkey, it's about telenovellas" -- syrupy television serials produced in Latin America -- "They are all addicted," Elchanan said.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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