Cannes Film Business Is Buoyant — If Films Are Made for a Price

“The dead don’t die,” Constantin CEO Martin Moszkowicz joked on Thursday afternoon on Cannes’ Grand Hotel terrace, one of the Cannes Film Festival’s favorite industry haunts.

Moszkowicz wasn’t just quoting the title of Jim Jarmusch’s Festival Cannes opening movie, a zombie film set in small-town America. He was also implying that there are more movies coming to Cannes with commercial potential. And the good news for distributors like Moszkowicz is that these movie are cheaper to buy. To be sure, that’s not such a positive development for producers hoping to make a big profit on their latest projects.

After several years of cautious dealmaking at Cannes, there are signs that a larger number of movies are being sold at this year’s festival. Whether that points to full market rebound, however, is questionable. The larger picture is mixed. You could almost hear the industry collectively exhale on Friday when in the space of a few hours Amazon Studios ponied up $1.5 million for U.S. rights to “Les Misérables,” writer-director Ladj Ly’s feature-length narrative film debut, and Paramount paid nearly $50 million for the rights to the Chris Hemsworth and Tiffany Haddish comedy “Down Under Cover.”

“This will be our second year running with record sales during Cannes,” said FilmNation CEO Glen Basner, who sold “Down Under Cover.” “It feels like there is some stabilization in the market, but focused primarily on films that are clear theatrical propositions.”

“Down Under Cover” isn’t the only big project that will likely leave Cannes with major distribution deals. Roland Emmerich’s “Moonfall,” sold by AGC Studios and CAA Media Finance, had been bought in such major territories as Latin America and Germany, despite carrying a $150 million budget. The movie was originally set up at Universal, which later put it into turnaround, prompting the filmmakers to piece together funding independently.

“We anticipate hopefully having a worldwide financial and distribution framework significantly in place for the film by the end of the festival,” said AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford.

Family films appear to be getting a warm reception. Last Wednesday, after only two days of dealmaking, Studiocanal reported it had received offers from “all over the world” on Cottonwood Media’s “Around the World,” an animated adaptation of a Jules Verne novel. “Black Beauty,” a drama that features voice work from Kate Winslet, was also “selling very well,” Mister Smith Entertainment’s David Garrett said Saturday. “Cannes feels very buoyant,” he added.

Other buzzy titles include Voltage Pictures’ “The Minuteman,” an action film with Liam Neeson that was acquired in Germany by KKR, as well as Pathé Intl.’s $25 million-budgeted historical drama “Eiffel,” starring Romain Duris and Emma Mackey, and Nicolas Bedos’ romance “Belle Epoque.”

The very drivers of market activity also point, by way of contrast, to its still roiling challenges, however.

“The market has adjusted, prices are way more reasonable,” said Moszkowicz. “We’re hearing it from everybody. People are saying: ‘If I buy a movie priced in the $400,00 to $600,000 range, if it works, it’s great. If it doesn’t work, it won’t kill me.’ ”

Producers may not be as overjoyed at market prices falling, even if it helps their films sell. And if they’re making less money that likely means that actors, directors and other key talent are going to be asked to shave their fees. It all adds up to doing the same amount of work for a smaller paycheck.

U.S. distribution is still a big issue. There are fewer studios now that Disney has purchased Fox, and most of the major companies are more interested in remaking past hits or backing sequels to long-running franchises than they are with buying an unknown property in the script stage out of Cannes. Moreover, there aren’t all that many Hemsworths or Haddishes out there who can provide the kind of star power that makes studios feel comfortable spending tens of millions of dollars on a project.

But overseas distributors appear to be willing to buy movies even if there’s no deal set for the States. They assume that a film will eventually be able to figure out some kind of U.S. distribution, even if it’s only through a day-and-date release that debuts a movie simultaneously in theaters and on-demand.

Paying a studio to distribute a movie can be a double-edged sword, leaving a films’ investors open P&A costs often as big a their movies’ budget.

“There’s still a lot of movement in the market, especially in Europe,” said Moszkowicz.

EOne is buying for the U.K., while Spanish distributors seem to be coming back to the table. In Germany, global investment firm KKR, which acquired the Tele München Group in February, is buying vigorously.

In contrast, “China has slowed substantially,” Moszkowicz said. The Middle Kingdom used to be a major buyer for movies, but trade tensions between the U.S. and China may be throwing a wrench in dealmaking.

This year’s Cannes market is “half-full, half-empty,” said Ford. “There are very few fully packaged commercial films in the market.”

He added: “On the other hand, when a real movie is up for grabs there are hungry, well-capitalized buyers ready to spend serious money.”

There may be fewer buyers overall, though. The lobbies of hotels such as the Grand and the Carlton aren’t as bustling as they once were and even popular restaurants such as the Italian eatery Vesuvio still have a few empty tables during the dinner hour. As Ford noted, Cannes this year is very much “half-full, half-empty.”

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