Cannes Preview: Security Concerns, New Distribution Models Dominate Pre-Festival Talk

Cannes Film Festival
Jasu Hu for Variety

Four masked assailants brandishing semi-automatic weapons charged up the steps of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes last month. A savage gunfight erupted, shattering the peace in the seaside resort. As police officers ducked for cover, SWAT teams escorted terrified civilians to safety, guiding them over the bodies of people apparently struck down by bullets.

This was just a test, but the elaborately staged display highlights how seriously French officials and Cannes Film Festival organizers are taking security in the wake of terrorist attacks in Brussels in March and in Paris last November.

It also underscores feelings of uncertainty about safety that will inevitably spill into the world’s most glamorous film festival. Woody Allen, director of the opening-night film, “Café Society,” concedes that he’s anxious. “Oh, listen, I worry about that when I go to the supermarket or I get the newspaper,” he tells Variety. “I’m the world’s biggest worry-wart. So you can’t judge by me. I’m hypochondriacal when it comes to terrorism.”

Even so, there are reasons to be on edge, following a spring warning by the FBI that entertainment executives abroad could be the target of attacks by ISIS.

“People are concerned,” says Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics. “They want to know what extra security steps are being taken.”

But others aren’t fixating on hypothetical dangers. “We can’t live our lives worrying about what might happen,” says Paul Davidson, executive VP of film and television at the Orchard.

Aside from the extra guards and security checkpoints, most studio executives expect the festival to be business as usual. The stars will still be out; appearances are expected from such heavy hitters as George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Julia Roberts and Sean Penn. And far away from the klieg lights of the red carpet, the real action will be happening: a thriving film market where buyers and sellers meet in hotel rooms and beachfront bars to haggle. In some cases, the prize is a hot script with perhaps a slice of A-list talent attached; in others, a finished film looking for the right distributor to usher it into multiplexes.

Amazon is distributing Jim Jarmusch’s Iggy Pop doc “Gimme Danger,” which screens at the festival.
Curtesy of Ed Caraeff/Amazon Studios

Andrew Niccol’s “Anon” with Clive Owen, John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” with Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Lasse Hallström’s “Tom’s Dad” with Will Ferrell are expected to draw offers, and awards contenders such as Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” will be sell- → ing foreign rights. However, many who are making the trek to the Riviera are unimpressed by what’s for sale, saying there aren’t many of the type of film that inspires all-night bidding wars.

“There are some good projects, but there isn’t the breadth of strong projects that we’ve seen in recent Cannes,” says Stuart Ford, founder of IM Global. “From the buyer perspective, tectonic shifts in the distribution landscape globally have created a degree of caution.”

The hope is that a flurry of high-profile projects will be announced in the days leading into the festival. Part of the issue, financiers and producers say, is that it’s getting more challenging than ever to wrangle the prominent actors who guarantee foreign pre-sales and backing. The culprits are a mixture of television productions and superhero films that require extensive commitments to shoot and promote.

“For big stars with franchises, there’s a wide swath of the calendar that’s taken up, and they have narrower chunks to do the other stuff they want to do,” says Marc Schaberg, co-president and COO of Sierra/Affinity.

But the biggest story to emerge on the festival circuit this year — from Sundance to SXSW — is how the market has been upended by Amazon and Netflix. The streaming services have the financial heft to scoop up any project that catches their fancy — as Amazon did in January when it bought “Manchester by the Sea” for $10 million — or at the very least drive prices into the stratosphere, something Netflix accomplished with its unsuccessful $20 million bid for “The Birth of a Nation.”

“Netflix and Amazon are making it more challenging for other distributors to compete,” says Jessica Lacy, head of international and independent film at ICM. “They’re coming in very strong and making a good argument for their models.”

That’s left many studios trying to hook onto projects earlier in development. The strategy allows them to maintain tighter control over a film’s quality, while also steering clear of the pricey acquisitions market.

“People want to get involved in material at the script stage,” says Graham Taylor, head of global finance and distribution at WME. “The market is such that you have to be as upstream as possible.”

The contours of the business are changing in other ways. In a sign of how seriously it is investing in films, Amazon will have five pictures competing in Cannes, more than any other studio. “We see it as an incredible affirmation,” says Jason Ropell, Amazon’s worldwide head of motion pictures. “Our goal is to make visionary films from visionary directors.”

Digital Buying Power
Amazon and Netflix conducted fierce dealmaking at Sundance, raising traditional distributors’ concerns that the services will continue to drive up prices at Cannes, making it difficult to compete
$10m “Manchester by the Sea,” acquired by Amazon
$7m “The Fundamentals of Caring,” acquired by Netflix
$5m “Tallulah,” acquired by Netflix
$2m “Complete Unknown,” acquired by Amazon

Also making buyers wary is the fact that as digital business expands, the home entertainment sector keeps shrinking.

The DVD market is declining, and pay TV deals aren’t as lucrative as they once were. Some players see opportunity in this froth of change.

Awesomeness Films, the big-screen offshoot of YouTube pioneer AwesomenessTV, will be at Cannes for the first time, looking for distribution for three films. The pictures, which include “You Get Me” with Bella Thorne and “Wolf in the Wild” with Frank Grillo, are targeted to appeal to teen audiences — the same demographic that’s been going to movies less frequently. The company has the goods to appeal to the texting generation, according to president Matt Kaplan. “As the world becomes more niche, the marketing around a movie has to be much more targeted for films to have success.”

For newcomers and those who make the jaunt to Europe each year, the reality of Cannes is much different than the cocktail of fashion and cinema that entrances the world: It’s simply hard work.

“It’s this insane adrenaline rush that you’re on where you have to be on all the time, no matter how tired, jet-lagged or hungover you are,” says Nadine de Barros, co-founder of Fortitude International. “It’s not glamorous. It’s not unusual to see me holed up in the bathroom eating a panini.”

It’s the same for talent — just ask Allen.

“I get off the plane and I’m escorted instantly to interviews,” the director says. “I do wall-to-wall interviews until I leave. I never get a chance to do anything that isn’t connected with promotional obligation to the movie.”