The hard sell film Markets
Steve Simpson

For nearly seven decades, top talent has descended on the Croisette for splashy parties and black-tie movie premieres. But in the past couple years, more and more actors and directors have been arriving in Cannes, Berlin and AFM for equally star-studded events before a frame of their films has been shot, simply to persuade buyers to get their projects into theaters — or even off the ground.

The rebounding world economy, a glut of films, packages with top talent falling through and skeptical buyers have combined to make elaborate presales events and presentations a far more important step in getting films made. This trend has shaped the marketplace in many ways, leading to greater costs for sellers and greater creative input from buyers as films are taking shape.

Last year in Cannes, Justin Timberlake mingled with distribs at an opening-night party for his disco-era biopic “Spinning Gold,” and Martin Scorsese appeared for his first sales pitch on the long-gestating drama “Silence.” A few months earlier, Charlize Theron flew to Berlin to boost presales for “Dark Places,” the lit adaptation she’s toplining and producing. And in November, Russell Crowe took questions from AFM buyers about his directorial debut, “The Water Diviner.”

“It certainly advances the idea that this is a real project and a live project,” says FilmNation exec VP, marketing & distribution, Richard Baker, who brought Hugh Grant to have cocktails with buyers in Berlin last year, helping sell out foreign territories for his upcoming and yet-to-be-titled Mark Lawrence romantic comedy.

Jason Statham is one of the top talents who may visit Cannes to promote presales, while Crowe is expected to appear with new “Water Diviner” footage at the Majestic on May 15 to entice U.S. distribs, and “Hunger Games” stars might drop in to excite “Mockjingjay” buyers at a May 17 Cap d’Antibes party.

“It is getting more difficult to lock down casts and get projects put together,” says Fortitude Intl. co-founder Nadine de Barros, who brought Robert Rodriguez to Cannes last year for one-on-one chats with buyers at a “Sin City 2” cocktail party. “In this competitive environment, there’s always a level of comfort buyers get in hearing from directors like Robert and stars like Jake Gyllenhaal on ‘The Night Crawler’ about how committed they are.”

Talent has long been used for presale presentations on special occasions, but the increasing number in recent years has created a “keeping up with the Joneses” effect. “It keeps getting more competitive. We’re looking to bring over directors and cast more often, and we wouldn’t have a few years ago,” says Myriad Pictures founder Kirk D’Amico.

This star power doesn’t always come cheap. “Sometimes you can spend $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 bringing talent in, because a star will usually bring a coterie of people with him, so you have to pick and choose,” says Foresight Unlimited founder Mark Damon.

He decided it was worth flying in Timberlake for “Spinning Gold,” because “Justin is one of the greatest musical icons in the business today. By having him in Cannes hosting an opening-night party, we felt the publicity there would be enormous and help us achieve the number that we wanted to in the territories we sold — and then it did.”

Most important, Timberlake worked the 1,000-plus guests at the party like a pro. At another Cannes presales event Damon hosted, “the cost was excessive, and the result was nowhere near as good,” he says. “I don’t want to mention the star or the picture, but sometimes just bringing the star will not help if he’s not really there pitching, putting his heart and soul into making certain that buyers understand what kind of picture it is.”

Oftentimes a director is more effective in helping sell a project. “Lone Survivor” “was very American, so that needed an extra little push,” says Foresight prexy Tamara Birkemoe. Damon adds: “We didn’t feel it would help bringing in the star. They wanted to hear the vision of the director (Peter Berg), and that helped us.”
But, he cautions, “it all depends on whether the director is persuasive or not.”

Sellers have raised their game with more than just talent. In February, to presell their Jesse Owens biopic “Race,” Mister Smith Entertainment brought some 200 buyers inside one of the film’s key locations — Berlin’s Olympic Stadium — and to the box where Adolf Hitler viewed the African-American track and field athlete’s four gold medal wins in 1936.

As archival footage played on the empty stadium’s Jumbotrons, his daughter Marlene Owens spoke about her dad’s experiences and director Stephen Hopkins relayed his vision for the film. “It’s getting them involved and committed much earlier than they ever have been before,” says the outfit’s exec VP of international marketing and publicity, Jill Jones.

It’s also giving foreign buyers an influence on the filmmaking process once reserved for domestic distribs.
After Crowe presented a pre-production “mood reel” for “The Water Diviner,” showcasing his filmmaking team, locations and other key elements to potential AFM buyers, “a lot of the most interesting information came from the questions from the distributors who know what they’re looking for, (such as) ‘What’s the running time? I hope it’s not going to be a three-hour movie!’” Jones recalls.

Crowe has since invited the film’s buyers to his otherwise closed set.

“There’s a different level of ownership and input that these distributors are having, not just on our films, where perhaps they didn’t have that access before,” Jones notes. “I think we involve distributors much earlier in the process than before. It’s much more of a partnership and dialogue than a delivery.”

Even the old plasma screen standby, the promo reel, is getting supersized.

While sellers occasionally show extended post-production footage to boost presales, creating the 15-minute reel on the Alan Turing biopic “The Imitation Game” was “more like cutting a short film,” says FilmNation’s Baker.

The reel excised subplots and focused on the film’s WWII-era section, which featured star Benedict Cumberbatch’s most powerful moments.

“We knew we had this incredible performance from Benedict, and Keira (Knightley) for that matter, so we tried to cut something with an awards feel, showcasing the emotional arc of the characters. It was about our buyers having an emotional response”

The gambit worked — the Weinstein Co. bought U.S. rights for a whopping $7 million.

“They need the commitment from us that were going to deliver something that’s going to work for them commercially,” Jones notes. “The more they know, and the more they have an early influence on that process, the more confidence they’re going to have.”

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