EXCLUSIVE: A frenzied Saturday auction on the Croisette has ended with FilmDistrict in final negotiations for U.S. distribution rights to Looper, the Rian Johnson-directed science fiction film that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and Bruce Willis. There were at least six bidders spanning major studios and independents, and it sounds like some serious upfront money was paid. But the intriguing part is that the deal orchestrated between CAA and FilmDistrict’s Peter Schlessel will likely end in FilmDistrict using an option with Sony Pictures, which would release and market the film through the TriStar label. That replicates the distribution structure of District 9, which Schlessel acquired while he was at Sony. The picture has a similarly brainy construct and is also reminiscent of the first Terminator.

Johnson wrote the script, about a contract killer who works for the mob of the future, and who kills victims  that are sent back in time 30 years, so there is no trace of the crime in the future. It’s a great gig, until the killer (Gordon-Levitt) recognizes that one of his targets (Willis) is a futuristic version of himself. Piper Perabo, Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels also star. The film was financed by Endgame’s James Stern, who produced with Johnson’s partner Ram Bergman.

CAA still has to paper the deal, but that likely gives Sony and Amy Pascal its second release schedule addition in the last 24 hours. As Deadline revealed early Saturday, the studio acquired the David Frankel-directed Great Hope Springs with Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell starring.

It was yet another in a flurry of Cannes deals that shows how far the independent movie business has rebounded. Cannes so far has proven to be very much like the last Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, where distribution deals were plentiful. Sure, the numbers paid for the most part aren’t what movies were fetching years back, but the picture is much brighter than it was two years ago. FilmDistrict has closed its third deal of the festival: It acquired the Gerard Butler-starrer Playing the Field, and also bought Inferno’s Arabian Nights with Liam Hemsworth.

Looper benefits by falling into a sweet spot that has developed for films that have crossover mainstream potential and can play on upwards of 2000 screens. Beyond the usual buyers, upstart distributors include CBS Films, FilmDistrict, Open Road and Relativity Media. These guys are hungry and have helped create a good market for films that include The Wettest County In The World, the John Hillcoat-directed picture about Prohibition-era bootleggers in the South that stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman. That picture, being auctioned by CAA and Cassian Elwes for cofinanciers Megan Ellison and Michael Benaroya, has several suitors but they are all playing a good hand of poker at the moment and everybody’s holding ’em, short of  the $6 million the buyers want for the film. Relativity had the high bid this morning, but the question is, will it raise the ante up a bit to win the deal? And since these movies are being sold on the basis of buyers reading a script and watching a highlight reel, it’s judgment call whether the finished product will be art house or mainstream.