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Jessica Chastain’s ‘355’ Sparks Bidding War in China

At least three major Chinese companies are competing to board “355,” the spy thriller from Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films that is one of the hottest new projects on the market in Cannes. But for one of these well-established firms to secure the rights means overcoming a major challenge from a host of cashed-up newcomers.

Simon Kinberg is set to direct the film from a script by Theresa Rebeck, based on an original idea by Chastain. The film is being pitched at the Cannes Film Festival by FilmNation Entertainment and CAA Media Finance Group. Universal picked up the U.S. rights for more than $20 million Saturday. CAA is spearheading the sale of Chinese rights.

Bona Film Group, Wanda and Huayi Brothers are all looking to become equity investors in the female-driven picture and to secure the distribution rights in Greater China, sources say.

The film’s high-concept action genre would appear to give it significant appeal in the Middle Kingdom. So, too, does the casting of China’s leading female star, Fan Bingbing, in a significant role.

“The script would need some modifications,” a China source close to Bona told Variety on condition of anonymity. “But we think the project has great potential in China.”

In the past, Bona’s relationship with CAA would have made it the presumptive front-runner in the race for Chinese rights. Last June, Bona and CAA jointly launched a $150 million content acquisition and investment fund focused on globally appealing English-language movies and large-scale co-productions. Last year, the fund was named as one of the initial investors in Roland Emmerich’s “Midway,” though the project is now set up at Stuart Ford’s AGC.

But eager new Chinese players bent on quickly building vertically integrated media empires are likely to be favored for “355,” according to some sources. This week has seen companies such as the largely unknown Turbo Films buy “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” two-month-old Sweet Charm buy Johnny Depp-starrer “City of Lies,” Vision Films buy “Ghosts of War” and four-year-old Hi-Show buy Cannes opener “Everybody Knows.”

Also in the picture are China’s streaming giants, iQIYI, Tencent Video and Youku, which have huge buying power. iQIYI recently raised $2.5 billion in an IPO, and this week unveiled an output deal with “355” seller FilmNation.

“This could be a really big film for China, and the new companies are offering so much money,” one top Chinese financier said. “One of them is going to end up winning and paying too much for it.”

The film “355” sees five female operatives banding together to stop a global organization from acquiring a weapon that could thrust the world into chaos. Along the way, these strangers and enemies become comrades and friends, and a new group code-named “355,” after the first female spy in the American Revolution, is formed.

The cast announced so far includes Chastain, Fan, Lupita Nyong’o, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz. Producers are Chastain and Kelly Carmichael through Freckle Films, along with Kinberg under his Kinberg Genre banner.

“Some of my greatest experiences are being part of an ensemble, both on stage as well as in films,” Chastain said recently. “I see creating something like ‘355’ as an opportunity and privilege to assemble a diverse group of women, all of whom have greatly influenced the film industry through their work, to join together equally and explore the badass world of international espionage and thrillers.”

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