Virtual Cannes Has Movies, Tests COVID-19 Ravaged Markets

Mark Wahlberg, Kristen Stewart and Nick
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Despite the pandemic and disruption of the global entertainment industry, at the Cannes virtual market, it’s game on. Hugh Jackman, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Bruce Willis, Nick Jonas, Laurence Fishburne, Lily James and Tessa Thompson all headline projects being brought onto Cannes’ pre-sales market and directed by the likes of Michael Mann, Antoine Fuqua, Baltasar Kormakur, Pablo Larrain and Pablo Trapero.

Deals are already going down on select movies, even before the Hollywood agencies present their A Demain Marché online platform of projects over June 22-23.

At a second virtual market, Cannes Marché du Film Online, which screens completed films, trading has also kicked off on a line-up led by such Cannes Official Selection titles as Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” Fernando Trueba’s “Forgotten We’ll Be,” Francois Ozon’s “Summer 85” and Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers.”

Both digital markets were initially conceived as being mainly initiatives to reconnect industry players. Three months later, many companies have decided as push comes to shove to launch at least some of their bigger projects now rather than wait for the fall.

“Since there’s no perfect timing this year, and no clear idea of what the fall or even Berlin is going to look like, we’re jumping in now,” said MK2 Films’ Fionnuala Jamison.

That seems to be pretty well everyone’s mantra for this market.

“This year there’s five or six big premium packages — which is par for the course for any Cannes market,” said AGC Studios chairman-CEO Stuart Ford. “Our indications are that distributors are buying the big stuff. Buyers need premium product they can build a 2021-and-beyond slate around.”

“There’s product definitely and deals are being negotiated,” said Martin Moszkowicz, executive board chairman at Germany’s Constantin Film, who indicated Constantin was in talks on a couple of titles.

But Cannes two virtual markets still raise as many questions as they’ve now answered, including: Will projects ever get made? What is the independent distributors’ ability to step up to the plate? Will some titles, having lit a fire at Cannes, be taken off the market by far-deeper pocketed studios or platforms?

“The point of the virtual market is to … say,  ‘We’re not going to stop.’ We’re going to continue to band together and keep our business flowing,” said Rena Ronson, head of UTA Independent Film Group.

Big title news has certainly flowed, if steadily. Antoine Fuqua will direct Will Smith in Civil War action thriller “Emancipation,” to be introduced at Cannes by FilmNation, according to press reports. FilmNation also has Larraín’s “Spencer,” with Stewart as Princess Diana.

Jackman looks attached to STX-sold “Ferrari,” from Michael Mann. Wahlberg re-teams with Kormakur for Sierra/Affinity-sold adventure movie “Arthur the King.” Jonas and Fishburne star in AGC Studios’ action thriller “The Blacksmith.” Willis will shoot “Killing Field” for Emmett/Furla Films; Thompson heads Mister Smith Entertainment’s psychological thriller “Balestra”; James stars in Pablo Trapero’s thriller “The Paris Trap,” for Studiocanal.

Among titles from other France-based companies, MK2/The Exchange are shopping “The Inventor,” an animated feature by “Ratatouille” scribe Jim Capobianco featuring a voice cast headlined by Daisy Ridley and Stephen Fry; Gaumont introduces period thriller “The Mad Women’s Ball,” helmed by and starring Melanie Laurent. Pulsar Content and XYZ Films present Russian sci-fi thriller “Superdeep” with Milena Radulovic (“The Balkan Line”).

Almost inevitably, COVID-19 influences the tenor of new titles.

“We’re seeing more uplifting, mainstream-type content being pushed for this market in particular, just given the restrictions around it,” said Deb McIntosh, a partner at Endeavor Content, which handles U.S. sales with CAA Media Finance on “Balestra” and “Spencer.”

The pandemic, however, is also driving Cannes markets’ biggest challenges.

One “big question all distributors are asking themselves,” said Moszkowicz, is: “‘Are these movies really going to happen?’ That’s especially true when shows are expected to shoot in the U.S. Nobody knows when that will really resume, when travel for crew and cast is going to be possible.”

Unsurprisingly, sales agents are talking up titles that are less exposed to potential COVID-19 second spikes.

“All our movies due to start either this summer or later this year, are very contained. All the financing’s in place, and the talent locked. Hopefully, we’ll able to get in and out — prep and shoot — in less time than a lot of the bigger studios‘ films and the streamers’ series will take just to prep their productions,” said Mister Smith Entertainment CEO David Garrett.

Above all, COVID-19 is powering a fundamental repositioning of much of independent distribution, which may well be seen at Cannes.

“The key independent buyers we’re dealing with are real, theatrically driven cinema companies,” said Endeavor Content’s Alex Walton.

“Cannes is slanted more than ever towards the high-end pre-buy marketplace — bigger movies that have talent packages that more or less guarantee big theatrical exposure,” Ford added.

Pre-sales, he said, are harder on anything that’s smaller or left-field.

One of the market’s biggest talking points is just how many Cannes big packages will be hailed as coming on to the market only to be bought by platforms.

During COVID-19, independent distributors have themselves turned more than ever before to selling movies directly to global platforms’ ever-swelling ranks. Some have done quite nicely.

One case in point: Le Pacte, one of France’s top arthouse distributors, is believed to have made a profitable deal with Amazon for Matteo Garrone’s Berlinale title “Pinocchio” after theaters in France shut down.

“Crises accelerate change,” said Moszkowicz. Cannes sales may focus, as never before, on a select top star-laden echelon or big name auteurs.

Manori Ravindran contributed to this article