As the world slowly recovers from the coronavirus crisis and theaters start reopening, sales agents and distributors, whose business traditionally drives the independent film sector, are facing an uncertain future while trying to make the best of this year’s abbreviated festival circuit. The Cannes Marché du Film, along with a sales initiative led by Hollywood agencies, will be hosting the first major virtual market since the start of pandemic, starting on June 22. Distributors and sales agents are looking forward to it: the turn-up for the online Cannes Marché du Film is significant with more than 7,000 accredited participants as of June 9.

“As nobody can leave their house, a virtual market is the next best thing. It’s a valid and worthwhile effort … people need something to initiate interactions. If this virtual market can help in some way to stimulate business that’s a great thing,” says Dylan Leiner at Sony Pictures Classics, who added that he was nevertheless already talking to sales agents every day about upcoming projects. Leiner, like many others, will be attending both the agencies event geared towards English-language movies with cast and the Cannes market, which is focused more on international and arthouse fare.

That said, expectations as far as dealmaking are low for most. “Sales agents say they are looking at the market as a way to support the industry and Cannes, not as a way for business to be done. Most of them aren’t going to showcase premium projects, and are waiting for Cannes of next year, but many will still be part of the virtual market to show solidarity and support,” says an industry insider who did not want to be identified.

But what kinds of movies will actually be up for sale at this Cannes virtual market? Besides the fact that the pandemic has left many independent distributors in dire straits, the absence of the Cannes Film Festival running alongside the Marché du Film is creating an unprecedented situation. With its stars-packed red carpet gala premieres and non-stop mingling, the Cannes festival traditionally creates a sense of excitement around movies in its Official Selection, as well as buzz for titles in the market, ultimately putting everyone in the mood for business. With none of that happening in the real world this year, the incentive is lacking for many players.

“Cannes is one of the largest media events in the world, covered by more than 4,000 journalists and over 2,000 media outlets from around 90 countries. You can’t replicate this with an online event. Theatrical movies need the big screen,” says Martin Moszkowicz, executive chairman of Constantin Film, a leading Germany distribution banner that will nevertheless have its acquisition team at both the Marché du Film and the agencies-led initiative.

Antonio Saura, executive director of Madrid-based Latido Films, says, “Online markets [are taking] place in extraordinarily adverse circumstances: Production stoppages, a distribution bottleneck and little visibility over future cinema theater attendance.”

Italian veteran sales agent Catia Rossi, who heads the newly launched outfit Vision Distribution, says this virtual market is “going to be a ‘pilot episode’ for all of us … We’ll have a full range of our client base attending Cannes, but whether it’s a real presence or instead they are just signed up, only the market itself will tell us that.”

Cannes has created an Official Selection with 56 movies selected by the festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux and his committee, but because those films won’t have a world premieres in front of a large audience, many sales agents will not show the Cannes-labeled movies in the virtual market.

In fact, only a quarter of Cannes-labeled films have screenings booked so far, according to Cannes’ Marché du Film’s boss Jerome Paillard. However, many labeled movies that won’t be screened by sales agents will be teased for buyers with some kind of promotional materials. There will also be a plethora of market screenings planned for the more commercial movies that are not destined for the festival circuit, explains Paillard.

UniFrance, the French film promotion organization, is working with French sales agents to organize invite-only screenings for local films that are not part of the Official Selection, and publicity events to create buzz around Cannes labeled films that aren’t screening.

“There is a lot that can be done without showing a film, and a movie is seldom sold out in a single market anyway, so we can at least help sales agents start the conversation with buyers, create some anticipation for films with live virtual discussions with talent and filmmakers, for instance,” says Daniela Elstner, managing director of UniFrance and former managing director of Paris-based sales company Doc & Film Intl. “It’s going to be a lot of fine-tuning, finding the right strategy for each film.”

Some labeled films from renowned auteurs such as François Ozon (“Eté 85”) and Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”) will, on the hand, be shown at the Cannes virtual market because these films have already been pre-sold in many territories, and will be coming out in theaters in their respective markets, France and Denmark, later this year. These movies will also have no problem getting into a fall festival afterwards because they would have played in more than one festival in normal times.

However, for some smaller movies, it’s a different story. Organizers at festivals such as San Sebastian and Toronto have advised sales agents with less high-profile titles to keep their wares under wraps until the fall in order to have more impactful world premieres with proper media attention, explains Mathieu Delaunay, head of international sales at Memento Films Intl. The Paris-based company just acquired Bulgarian helmer Kamen Kalev’s “February,” but won’t screen as it hopes to have the pic bow at San Sebastian.

The situation is similar with Eric Lagesse at Pyramide Intl., who is selling Danielle Arbid’s “Passion Simple” and Marie Castille Mention-Schaar’s “A Good Man,” which both have the Cannes 2020 label and have a chance of getting into Toronto. Lagesse says he was waiting for an answer from Toronto to decide on whether to screen the film for buyers at the virtual market.

The question is, how much is the Cannes 2020 Label worth on its own, without a physical festival attached, and ultimately how strong is the Cannes brand outside of France?

“I think this is a ‘wait-and-see’ situation. Cannes is arguably the most important international festival, and their label should give a big stamp of approval for audiences. After all, there are some amazing films featuring the Cannes 2020 label,” says Clare Binns, joint managing director of Picturehouse Cinemas, the U.K.’s leading arthouse exhibition chain and also an independent distributor.

“Given that so many festivals and other large-scale events have been canceled this year, the introduction of Cannes 2020 label should be helpful for the business more widely,” adds Binns.

Susan Wendt, the managing director of Scandinavian sales banner TrustNordisk, which is handling Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” says she’s also confident that some deals will get made at the virtual Cannes market on either the big titles from high-profile auteurs or the platform-driven movies that don’t need to open in theaters. “We may not have meetings booked every 15 minutes like in Cannes, but we have one or two meetings per hour which is good,” says Wendt.

“In this market, the films that are neither big nor small with no big names attached, in terms of cast or director, will not be sold before they’re completed and playing at a festival,” says Wendt.

While the biggest distributors will be looking for both completed films and projects at script stage, many European arthouse distributors in major markets already have a full slate of postponed or upcoming releases to deal with before thinking of buying more films. Distributors such as Tobias Lehmann from Alamode, a distributor in Germany and Austria, will primarily be looking to buy films at script stage, predicting that there will be a gap at some point next year.

“We think the pre-sale market will be strong because despite the uncertainty of when films are coming back to theaters and what the macroeconomic landscape could be, the reality is that distributors need films for 2021 and beyond,” says veteran sales executive Stuart Ford at AGC Studios. “[For] the bigger, stronger films in the marketplace, there will be plenty of buyers, but maybe there won’t be the same depth to the marketplace we’re used to seeing,” he adds.

Ultimately, the reopening of theaters, which will be key to jump-starting the business, will happen around the Cannes market in many countries across Europe and in some U.S. states. After reopening first in Norway in May, and then in Germany and Austria earlier this month, theaters will reopen in Italy on June 15, in France on June 24 and in Belgium in July 1. Spain’s theaters will also soon reopen. The lack of fresh releases has been problematic in countries were theaters opened too soon, for instance in Germany, where tickets sales are down 80% down on last year, but the arrival of anticipated Hollywood blockbusters like “Mulan” and “Tenet” is expected to energize the market.

“Some theaters are reopening and the demand for fresh releases is creating a need for the market to pick up. Distributors are playing the catch me if you can game, no one wants to go first and test the waters, although ultimately they need to release films to generate some revenues and make more acquisitions,” says Eric Marti at Comscore France.

However, the pandemic might have a bigger impact on moviegoing for arthouse movies, says Emilie Georges, founder of Memento Films Intl. “Luring back theatrical audiences for arthouse films might be more challenging because they tend to attract an older demo, which could take more time feeling comfortable enough to return to theaters in the post-COVID world,” says Georges, who is handling Asghar Farhadi’s project “A Hero.” Georges says that the audience for foreign-language arthouse cinema will likely be contracting on fewer movies from prestigious auteurs, underscoring an ongoing trend.

While the virtual format for market and festivals won’t replace the physical experience, Thorsten Ritter, exec VP of acquisitions, sales and marketing at German sales banner Beta Cinema, says the “virtual model could work particularly well for the more commercially driven titles.”

Beyond impacting the amount of traveling that people will be doing in the future, the COVID-19 crisis will have other long-term consequences for the way business is done going forward. “In terms of buying and selling films, windowing and holdback definitions will become an increasingly significant issue,” says Alison Thompson at the London- and L.A.-based international film production and sales company Cornerstone Films. “We must look at ways of bringing people back to cinemas and this may require focusing on younger audiences in the immediate future,” adds Mark Gooder at Cornerstone Films.

The whole industry has been hit hard by the pandemic but those who will take longer to recover are intermediary players like sales agents and distributors. Companies that have a diversified business and are involved in either production, financing of films and TV series, and those that have a solid library are better positioned to ride out through the storm.

“Producers are dealing with postponed shoots and additional costs for shooting, and theaters and platforms need content, but these issues will be solved in a short to medium-term, for sales agents and distributors, it’s going to take between 18 and 24 months before we get a clear idea of the new landscape post-COVID,” says Marti. In France, for instance, there were already a lot of alliances between distributors and “we can expect that more companies will partner up or even consolidate,” he adds.

The restart of film shoots is another short-term priority to get the business rolling again. “The bigger problem for packaging projects is not about finance but more about the question of when production can really start. It’s a bit of chicken and egg: you have to get all those pieces in place in order for people (talent, financiers) to commit to things,” says Rob Carney, VP of sales at FilmNation Entertainment. That’s why FilmNation, like many other sales banners, will at the virtual market to pre-sell movies that won’t be ready before 2022.

The pandemic shutdown has also accelerated certain working practices. “The independent sector (will) continue to evolve towards being a year-round business. After all, their biggest competitors for the premium products are streaming companies and they certainly don’t contain their buying activity to a few weeks a year,” says Ford.

Leo Barraclough, John Hopewell, Manori Ravindran and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report