Cannes Delivers Big Titles, Sales & Hope but Questions Market Models

Pierre Morel, Kristen Stewart and Will Smith
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“The Blacksmith,” “Ferrari,” “Armageddon Time” and “The Card Counter” look like market highlights of an extraordinary Cannes market, which saw its two virtual platforms delivering for a select number of big U.S. projects, amid large market caution and even fear of a second COVID-19 spike.

In the art film sector, Cannes Official Selection label titles made much of the running, with distributors lamenting that they would have loved to have seen more screened at Cannes. “Without the festival, the market was weak in terms of arthouse, because we lacked the buzz, hype and the experience of being all together in a screening room,” said Stefano Massenzi, head of acquisitions and business affairs at Italy’s distribution banner Lucky Red.

Equally, more mainstream distributors looked for greater depth in the pre-sales market. Most everyone, however, was delighted and some even surprised that the markets functioned at all, giving hope of an eventual reestablishment of the industry, however impacted it may be from COVID-19.

The main downside, some sales agents and buyers said, were technical glitches limiting trailer transmission on the Cannes Marché Online website.

“The top line is that everybody’s been working very hard to make the best of a difficult situation. There’s product, some big movies, deals being closed,  said Martin Moszkowicz, Constantin Film chairman of the executive board.

There were “lots of good projects, good quality and a range for everyone. There’s an efficiency to the market once you got organized and settled. But you still can’t replace the physical buzz of the market!” agreed Arianna Bocco, executive VP of acquisitions at IFC Films.

Jakob Abrahamsson, managing director of Non-Stop Entertainment, agreed, noting “a flurry of strong projects, even surprising many.” Non-Stop bought some titles and is bidding for a couple more, he reported.

However, the bottom line, Moszkowicz cautioned, was that product simply didn’t reach the levels of big titles traditionally trotted out for Cannes. “It’s an ersatz experience.”

Of the buzzy U.S. titles, AGC Studios announced on Thursday sales to more than half the world on the Nick Jonas and Laurence Fishburne action thriller “The Blacksmith.” Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, India, Portugal and Malaysia closed on Friday, with only China, Japan and Australia still in play heading into the weekend, said AGC Studios chairman-CEO Stuart Ford.

A Michael Mann passion project, with Hugh Jackman reportedly in advanced talks to star, “Ferrari” — catching Enzo Ferrari, the Italian Formula One magnate, at crunch point in his career and life — was mentioned by multiple buyers as one of the key big movie projects on the market.

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Kristen Stewart will star as Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer” Rex/Shutterstock

Also notable were Hanway’s “The Card Counter,” starring Oscar Isaac as a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to help a young man seek revenge, and “Armageddon Time,” from Wild Bunch International/CAA Media Finance, marking a personal movie from Jamie Gray that explores friendship via a stellar cast including, again, Isaac, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Anne Hathaway and Cate Blanchett.

Some big movies are still in the bidding process, such as Will Smith starrer “Emancipation,” with Apple and Warner Bros. surviving contenders for a title prompting bids of around $110 million net, according to Deadline Hollywood.

Cohen Media Group and Curzon snapped up just before the market Fernando Trueba’s Film Factory Ent.-sold “Forgotten We’ll Be,” a heartfelt tribute to a Colombian social activist, and then on Thursday French social-issue drama “Gagarine,” from Totem Films. TrustNordisk mopped up further major territories on Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” while Playtime also closed additional deals on another Cannes label title, Francois Ozon’s “Summer of 85.”

According to Deadline, Neon has also snapped up U.S. rights to Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” which stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana.

Films were still being brought onto the market as late as Thursday, led by the Rocket Science-sold U.K. period drama “Mothering Sunday,” co-starring Olivia Colman (“The Favorite”) and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”).

That is one sign of a detected market demand for bigger titles and coupled with the online mechanisms in place, the market could go on for days.

“Sales were slightly better than expected. But one thing is true: the online market does not end Friday. This is the beginning of a 365-day market,” said Antonio Saura at Spain’s Latido Films.

Through Friday, there was a steady, if slowish stream of U.S. deals on usually smaller titles. That may change. The most active distribution markets were Benelux, Russia, Switzerland, Spain and even the U.S., said Fionnuala Jamison, head of international sales at MK2 Films. “It’s a small pool of U.S. buyers but they are very competitive,” Jamison added.

Carole Baraton, co-founder of Charades, also had a busy market with five pics that screened. “We launched movies tailored for a film market, a mix of comedy (“The Speech”), genre (“Psycho Goreman”), animation and family (“Bigfoot Family,” “The Rosemaker”), and did well with both distributors and streaming services… overall a well-balanced and good market,” said Baraton.

It is logical, in retrospect, that if sales companies managed to bring big films onto the market, business would take place. Said Moszkowicz: “Cannes is by far the one market of the year that has always had the majority of the business of any given year. Everyone is working towards Cannes to get their movies financed, sold and then start shooting in summer.”

“The general feeling among distributors is that the market will come back at some point so they have to continue buying, and nobody wants to miss out on a market where everyone’s selling new projects,” added Maya Amsellem, managing director at WestEnd Films.

The London-based company held screenings on the A Demain Platform for both Emma Holly Jones’ period romantic comedy “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” starring Freida Pinto and Constance Wu, and Marc Forster’s “The Cow,” both of which have clinched major territory sales, she said.

If distributors pass on Cannes, they could be giving up on much of a year’s business.

“Toronto is not going to be a big marketplace this year. The AFM is a long way down the road and from a pre-sales perspective will focus on largely movies that probably will not deliver until 2022,” AGC Studios’ Ford said. “Factor in the recent production shut-down that has created gaps in most distributors’ 2021 slates and I think a lot of the buyers this week thought: ‘If we don’t buy now, when are we going to buy?’”

There’s consensus, however, that the virtual Cannes 2020 format is certainly not a model for Cannes itself. “It’s not fun. I’d prefer to be on the Croisette, eating good food and looking sellers in the eye as they overcharge for their movies,” Moszkowicz joked.

But it could well be a model for other festivals. Toronto has already announced it will be a hybrid on site/online event — if COVID-19 resists into 2021.

“Now we’re going to have an interesting dialog about how we officially retain and replicate this online format and build it into the calendar,“ Ford said.

“The international business has been at a pivotal moment for the past year or so,” said Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, a partner at France’s Playtime.

“There’s a shift in the business models for producers, sales agents and distributors,” he added. “The COVID-19 crisis seems to me to have only accelerated structural changes that were in the making.”

As the pandemic fails to disappear in key markets, the industry is now asking whether Cannes 2021, not Berlin, may be the first market with a real on-site world industry presence. Down the line, the virtual market did manage to create some optimism, something that most industry executives have been craving during months of lockdown.

“What struck me is the hopefulness among producers,” said Dylan Leiner at Sony Pictures Classics. “There is a combined sense of uncertainty and anxiety, and a sense of imagination and innovation. People are creating relationships and relying on each other in this environment.

Leo Barraclough contributed to this story.