Starry, Starry Nights

Actors Keanu Reeves, right, and Hugo Weaving appear in a fight scene from Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "The Matrix Reloaded," in this undated promotional photo. The Sept. 11 attacks and the war against terrorism that led to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have left audiences more primed than ever for big-screen heroes such as those in "The Matrix" and "X-Men" franchises. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures
Arnold. Keanu. Penelope, Tom and Nicole.

Those are just a few of the celebrities expected to overcome lingering travel jitters to wing their way east to the French Riviera, injecting the 56th Cannes Film Festival with a high dose of Hollywood glitz.

Though a confluence of international events - the Iraq conflict, the SARS outbreak, fears of terrorism - once threatened to drain the fizz from this year's festivities, the industry's anxieties look to have largely evaporated as the event draws near.

The May 14 opening night screening of the Penelope Cruz star vehicle, "Fanfan la tulipe," is slated to kick off a splashy pageant of talent, front-loaded with Hollywood events.

Cruz is expected to ascend the Palais des Festivals steps for the "Fanfan" screening along with boyfriend Tom Cruise.

Warner Bros.' "The Matrix Reloaded" screens out of competition the following night, with the cast - including Keanu Reeves and Monica Bellucci - and filmmakers expected on the red carpet as well.

Two "Terminator 3" parties - one sponsored by MTV and another held aboard the Budweiser Yacht for select VIPs - are scheduled for the first peek at the "T3" trailer.

And Cruise's ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, is set to attend with Lars von Trier's competition entry, "Dogville," expected to unspool early in the fest.

While the festival's official selections remain thin on high-profile films - without a single picture from Fox, Universal, DreamWorks, Paramount or Miramax - execs and agents predicted business would be robust.

UA topper Bingham Ray, who purchased "Bowling for Columbine" in Cannes last year, expects he and his team will find plenty of acquisitions prospects again this time around.

"We're going loaded for bear and we'll be looking at everything," he says.

"I think Cannes is going to be better this year than everyone thought," adds William Morris Independent co-chief Cassian Elwes, a fest circuit regular.

The international market, he says, has suffered from a malaise since 9/11. But Elwes noted the quick resolution to the war in Iraq could change things. "People will realize the world isn't going to end. They'll get back to business and buy some movies. Things are looking up."

That's a significant turnaround from the first week of the war with Iraq, when fear of terrorism was riding high, Franco-American relations were running cold, and execs around town expressed trepidation about traveling to the South of France.

At the time, a big talent agency head was trying to figure out how to get a refund on his prepaid hotel rooms, and even seasoned festgoers predicted war protesters on the Riviera and a subdued festival this year.

Some anxieties still hang in the air as opening night draws near. The ultimate price - in dollars, lives and fallout - of the Iraq conflict is still unclear. The SARS epidemic may yet stifle travel to Cannes from crucial Asian markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore. And a rocky market for global media companies continues to put buyers in a cautionary mood.

"Today people cannot afford to make huge mistakes," says Patrick Wachsberger, president and CEO of Summit Entertainment, whose usual Cannes staff of 10 employees will be shopping five or six features at the market. "When you buy something, you run your numbers very carefully."

But Wachsberger, like most Croisette mainstays, is optimistic Cannes will have its usual quotient of business deals and glitzy parties.

"It's not a political forum," reminds another Cannes regular, Rolf Mittweg, president of worldwide marketing and distribution at New Line. "I think things will just move along as they have in previous years."

That sentiment also is echoed by publicity and marketing consultant Dennis Davidson, whose company, DDA, is one of the main conduits to scoring accommodations and office space during the packed festival.

"The glamour events that have been planned all seem to be set in stone," he said. "There is a long wait list for rooms in the major hotels, especially the Du Cap (in Cap d'Antibes), for the opening week. And there is a feeling that the Cannes Film Festival, as a French institution, is a safer place than most, given the French attitude to the war."

Written By JONATHAN BING