Cannes Movies Are Still Counting on Netflix to Rev Up Sales

The success or failure of the Cannes Film Festival market could depend on Netflix’s willingness to write big checks.

If the streaming giant spends big to land the star-studded projects that are coming to the Côte d’Azur looking for distribution, that’s good news for sales agents. If not, bidding wars could be few and far between.

Heading into Cannes, Netflix made waves by declining to premiere its films in competition. Their feud with the festival stems from a rule that requires any films that play at Cannes to have an exclusive theatrical release before appearing on streaming platforms, something that runs afoul of Netflix’s business model. The contretemps robbed Cannes of splashy debuts — Netflix had considered bringing the likes of Paul Greengrass’ “Norway” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” to the Croisette.

Despite the bad blood, Netflix looks like it could still be actively buying films. It has circled the likes of “Everybody Knows,” the Cannes opening night film starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, and “Girls of the Sun,” a French drama film directed by Eva Husson. That’s a change of heart for the company. Over the last few months, Netflix has focused more on developing its own in-house productions and has been less acquisitive. That change in tactics has robbed previous film festivals of one of its biggest buyers. The sales market at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, for instance, was glacial, with Netflix failing to pick up any of the big films that debuted in Park City.

There’s plenty of star-studded movies at Cannes to potentially draw Netflix’s attention, such as “Ironbark,” a thriller with Benedict Cumberbatch, and “355,” a female-driven espionage yarn from Simon Kinberg with a cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o. FilmNation is repping both titles.

Also drawing interest from buyers are Sierra Affinity’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” which Guillermo del Toro is producing, and “Charlie Johnson in the Flames,” with Liam Neeson. Studiocanal will talk up “The Secret Garden,” from “Paddington” producer David Hayman.

“The question is if anything is really exciting,” said Ivan Boeing, at Brazil’s Imagen. “What it is now very hard to find in the independent world is a title that checks all the right boxes: Good director, good script, familiar faces or good actors, guaranteed U.S. distribution.”

Those types of sexy projects may be harder to come by, but this year’s Cannes isn’t lacking for big-budget extravaganzas. Lionsgate will offer up “The Kingkiller Chonicles,” a $120 million fantasy billed as the next “Hunger Games.” There’s also the World War II romantic action thriller “Midway,” and Laika’s new animated feature “Missing Link,” with a voice cast that includes Hugh Jackman. Both films are budgeted at roughly $100 million and will be sold by newbie venture AGC Studios.

“Big-budget action and family entertainment are the two genres the international marketplace is crying out for,” said AGC founder Stuart Ford.

These are the types of films that would have been backed by major studios a decade or so ago, but those players are now largely consumed with backing comic book movies and sequels to pre-existing franchises. It’s a void that indie players – financiers producers, sales agents and distributors – are hoping to fill.

“There is money out there prepared to take risk outside the studio environment,” said Alex Walton at Bloom, which has “Luce,” starring Naomi Watts.

“I think that sellers have caught up a little bit to what’s actually a theatrical proposition in today’s world, and what is the appropriate valuation,” observed FilmNation Ent.’s Glen Basner.

Then there’s China. The Middle Kingdom has long enticed Hollywood — its vast population has become a key source of box office revenue. It’s also increasingly a major source of equity investment. For instance, Chinese companies are footing the bill for “Midway.”

“Midway,” with its epic battles, is the kind of film that demands to be seen on the big screen. But buyers carp that there aren’t enough of those types of sweeping entertainments being offered up for sale.

“The marketplace is definitely strong right now. But I haven’t seen many of these films announced to date,” said STX president of international sales John Friedberg.

The truth is that some of the heat has gone out of the film business. Compared to just a decade ago, it is far harder just to bring a film onto the market.

For sales companies, financing movies is “more complicated, because the pre-sale model has shifted, putting more emphasis on equity and soft monies,” said David Garrett, at Mister Smith Ent., which is selling romancer “The Sunlit Night,” with Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”).

Television continues to attract top talent and more lavish budgets. Few movies have tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in the way that water-cooler shows such as “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” have managed. Independent distributors say that with the possible exception of “La La Land” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” few films financed outside of the studio system have pushed the boundaries of the medium in revolutionary ways. That needs to change.

“What we’re all missing is a new creative approach to the independent film world,” said Constantin Film’s chief Martin Moszkowicz. “The only way we can compete with Hollywood’s studios is by making more innovative and fresher movies than the studios.”

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