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For most of those involved in the film pre-sales business, the virtual Pre-Cannes Screenings, running June 21-25, is the main event, with the in-person Cannes festival and market in July almost a sideshow. The mood of those approaching this month’s bazaar is mostly upbeat, but with a note of sober caution.

“I would say that [the independent film business] is back on track in a way that is almost boring, in how — but for a few quirks of things like travel — it would be hard to distinguish it from many of the years prior. It’s a very adaptable business by nature because producers, financiers, sales agents and distributors in this space are used to being entrepreneurial and flexible and quick to react. And that’s just the nature of the business,” Benjamin Kramer, co-head, CAA Media Finance, says.

In the territories where movie theaters have reopened, the box office numbers are “encouraging,” says HanWay Films’ managing director Gabrielle Stewart. The tastes of cinemagoers have, however, shifted during the pandemic. Buyers will likely go for something high-concept and distinctive, or genre or feel-good movies, Alison Thompson, co-president of Cornerstone, says. “People want to be cheered up. People want to be entertained. I think perhaps one of the tough genres at the moment is drama, even drama with significant names attached.” Even with top talent attached, such as dramas like Cornerstone’s “Aisha” (pictured above) — toplining “Black Panther’s” Letitia Wright and “The Crown’s” Josh O’Connor — are likely to be “execution dependent”; in other words, buyers will wait to see the finished film.

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“The ideal film is one that we feel will have a broad appeal to different kinds of companies,” Thompson says, giving an example from a prior market: “The Fantastic Flitcrofts,” starring Mark Rylance is now more or less sold out, with a Hollywood studio circling the U.S. rights.

One issue for distributors is the backlog of films waiting to be released, which may deter buyers from picking up completed films. “I’ve looked at some lovely finished film that I just wouldn’t want to take on,” Stewart says.

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Courtesy of Patrick Redmond/Cornerstone

Thompson notes that among distributors, “some have managed to weather the storm better than others.” Among those to have coped best are “those who have libraries that they’ve been able to exploit during the pandemic. Some of them have done very well actually, because of the increased demand for content.”

Some distributors, in the U.S. and U.K. in particular, have pivoted to a new release model with the streaming window running alongside or after a short theatrical window, and that is working well. But, she adds: “there’s no question that others are having a tough time of it.”

Stewart asserts, “The future of independent film is all about curation.” The key is to distinguish theatrical films from the mass of content on the platforms. “I do think the public appreciates the difference,” she says. The exhibitors also need to deliver a “fantastic experience” for the cinemagoer, she adds. HanWay is selling psychological horror film “A Banquet,” starring Sienna Guillory (“Resident Evil”), in the Cannes Market, as well as Doug Liman’s “Everest,” which stars Ewan McGregor, Sam Heughan and Mark Strong.

From Embankment’s perspective, the independent film business appears to be in good health. “We can tell this by the fact that the films are getting financed very quickly, and that crews are basically booked up everywhere,” one of the firm’s partners Hugo Grumbar says.

Embankment’s Cannes slate includes “Emily,” starring BAFTA nominee Emma Mackey (“Sex Education”), which recently wrapped production in Yorkshire, and tells the origin story of “Wuthering Heights” author Emily Brontë.

Tim Haslam, Embankment’s other partner, adds that there remain issues with insurance for production, and that precautions to fend off COVID risks have added around 10% to budgets. This is problematic in an “economic world of transition, which isn’t allowing increased budgets in independent feature films,” he says.

The production backlog and the rise in the number of series ordered by the streamers is also creating difficulties in securing access to talent, both in front of and behind the camera. “I know that everyone’s grappling with that as we try and confirm our slate for Cannes,” Stewart says.

However, the growth in the number of streaming outlets is lifting the business. “It’s brilliant,” Haslam says. “More platforms, more outlets, more programming needed.”

FilmNation CEO Glen Basner also welcomes the influence of the streamers on the market.

“Because they’re buying so many different types of movies, they’re allowing for a greater volume of movies to exist, and exist profitably for content creators,” Basner says. “They’re also impacting what will make sense going forward for people making that decision whether to go to the movie theaters, or if it’s something they’d prefer to watch at home. And that creative distinction of what is theatrical going forward is something that we pay a lot of attention to.”

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Courtesy of HanWay

The power of the streamers is having an inflationary effect on independent films, Stewart says, citing the example of a period films that HanWay is representing.

“The producers feel they want to make it for a substantial budget because they want to compete with some of the production values we’ve seen in popular series paid for by Netflix,” Stewart says. “The audience is sophisticated, and they want high production values, and they want an experience.”

Most sales agents intend to go back to an in-person operation when it is safe, with most seeing AFM in November being the earliest opportunity to do that. “There’s nothing quite like discussing a film and its story in the room with the person,” Grumbar says.

Kramer adds: “I think people will want to get back to in-person because it is a social business and a relationship business, and nothing replaces the in-person experience. I for one am eager to go back to seeing people because a lot of the folks are more than [business] relationships, they have become friends.”

Diversification has softened the blow of the pandemic for many independent players, with, for example, film producers moving into series, and distributors going into production.

“It’s pretty tough to just stick in your single lane. It’s much more sensible to have several strands of business,” says Thompson. Many sales companies, like Cornerstone, have already moved into film production, and are now segueing into series creation too.

Basner says that while diversification is a boon for companies that shouldn’t be taken to mean there’s a problem with the film business. “Actually our film business is a growing business. Even during the pandemic, where there was a break in making movies, we’re involved in just as many movies as we always have.”

He adds: “And we think the future of the next three to five years for feature films is really bright in terms of the volume of our business, but also our ability to really help support and back bold filmmakers, like Sean Baker [“Red Rocket”] or Lena Dunham [“Sharp Stick”] this past year, where we made films with them during the pandemic. And that to me is really incredibly exciting.”

 

A selection of buzz titles in the Pre-Cannes market:

Aisha
Director: Frank Berry
Key cast: Letitia Wright, Josh O’Connor
Producers: Tristan Orpen Lynch, Aoife O’Sullivan, Donna Eperon, Sam Bisbee
Film follows the experiences of a young Nigerian woman as she seeks international protection in Ireland.
Sales: Cornerstone

Assailant
Director: Tom Paton
Producers: Philippe Martinez, Alan Latham
Key cast: Poppy Delevingne, Chad Michael Collins, Casper Van Dien, Jeff Fahey
Producers: Lee Beasley, Karinne Behr, Alastair Burlingham
A couple going through marriage counseling decide to head to the Caribbean on a sailing holiday to heal wounds find themselves relentlessly chased by the adversary, hellbent on killing them.
Sales: MSR Media Intl.

The Atlantic City Story
Director: Henry Butash
Producers: Henry Butash, Javier Gonzalez, Christian Sosa
Key cast: Jessica Hecht, Mike Faist, Gary Wilmes
An unhappily married woman runs away from home and goes to Atlantic City, where she meets a young gambler and develops an unlikely friendship with him.
Sales: Grandave Intl.

Ballywater
Director: Prasanna Puwanarajah
Producers: James Bierman, Nik Bower
Cast: Seána Kerslake, Patrick Kielty
Bittersweet drama set in Northern Ireland.
Sales: Bankside Films

Book of Love
Director: Analeine Cal Y Mayor
Producers: Michael Knowles, Naysun Alae-Carew, Allan Niblo, Nick Spicer, Maxime Cottray, Richard Alan Reid, XYZ Films, Sky
Key cast: Sam Claflin, Veronica Echgui
An uptight English writer is invited to Mexico to promote his new book and soon discovers his Spanish translator has rewritten his dull book as an erotic novel.
Sales: XYZ Films (worldwide minus U.K. & Ireland, Germany, Italy)

Boxing Day
Director: Aml Ameen
Producers: Matthew G. Zamias, Damian Jones, Aml Ameen, Dominique Telson, Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor
Cast: Aml Ameen, Aja Naomi King
Romcom follows Melvin, a British author living in the U.S. who returns home to London for Christmas to introduce his American fiancée to his family.
Sales: Rocket Science

Brian and Charles
Director: Jim Archer
Producers: Rupert Majendie
Cast: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, Jamie Michie, Nina Sosanya
A man in the grip of depression builds a robot to stave off loneliness.
Sales: Bankside Films

Brother
Director: Guillem Morales
Producers: Danny Davids, Colin Bates, Neil Canton, Samson Day
Michael Morrow isn’t like the rest of his savage, twisted family who are forever planning their next moment of bloodlust. Captive to misplaced loyalties, Michael is aware of the monster he has become, but breaking free from his past won’t be easy.
Sales: WestEnd

The Good Neighbor
Director: Stephan Rick
Key cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Luke Kleintank
Remake of German thriller “Unter Nachbarn,” also directed by Rick, follows new neighbors David and Robert, who find themselves bonded by a hit-and-run accident.
Sales: Highland Film Group (international); CAA (domestic)

He Went That Way
Director: Jeffrey Darling
Cast: Jacob Eloridi, Zachary Quinto
Producers: Marc Benardout, James Harris, Mark Lane, Hugh Broder, Jeremy Kotin, Phil Hunt
Set in 1964, the film is based on the true story of a road trip, the strange bonding and unique dealmaking between a serial-killer in the midst of a spree, an animal handler down on his luck and Zippy the TV chimpanzee.
Sales: Mister Smith Entertainment

May December
Director: Todd Haynes
Producers: Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Pamela Koffler, Natalie Portman, Sophie Mas, Christine Vachon
Key cast: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman
A Hollywood actress travels to the coast of Maine to study thereal-life woman, who was the subject of a tabloid scandal two decades prior for marrying a man 23 years her junior, in a film although the family dynamic begins to unravel under an outsider’s lens.
Sales: Rocket Science (international); UTA Independent Film Group and CAA Media Finance (domestic)

The Maestro
Director: Roland Joffé
Producers: Gilles Thompson, Richard Lechartier, Radosława Bardes, Izabela Igel , Raoul Bova
Key cast: Laëtitia Eïdo, Thomas Kretschmann
Drama inspired by the real story of Italian composer and conductor Francesco Lotoro.
Sales: The Exchange

Muscle
Director: F. Gary Gray
Key cast: Vin Diesel
Producers: Reginald Hudlin, Byron Phillips, Vin Diesel, Samantha Vincent
Film’s plot is under wraps.
Sales: Eros STXinternational

The Path
Director: Tobias Wiemann
Producers: Eyrie Entertainment, Warner Bros. Film Prods. Germany
Key cast: Julius Weckauf, Nonna Cardona, Volker Bruch, Anna Maria Mühe
Producers: On the run from the Nazis, Rolf and his father travel through the Pyrenees with a young local girl helping them but when the father is arrested halfway, the two kids and Rolf’s dog Adi have to escape on their own.
Sales: Global Screen

Princess
Director: Peter Luisi
Producers: Spotlight Media Prods.
Key cast: Matthias Habich, Johanna Bantzer, Fabian Krüger, Anne Haug, Lia Hahne
Drama in which a man would do anything for his niece, but after he unwittingly hurts her, he is cut off from the family and now, years later, he must rescue her from a Ukrainian prison.
Sales: Global Screen

The Real Charlie Chaplin
Directors: Peter Middleton, James Spinney
Producers: Ben Limberg, John Battsek, Mike Brett, Steve Jamieson, Jo-Jo Ellison
Doc about the iconic screen comic.
Sales: Altitude Film Sales

Refuge
Director: Renny Harlin
Producers: Yariv Lerner, Rob Van Norden, Gary Lucchesi, Michael McKay, Lori McCreary, Renny Harlin
Key cast: Jason Flemyng, Raza Jaffrey
A U.S. military veteran returns home changed and dangerous after a tour of duty in Afghanistan where he suffered an attack by a mysterious force.
Sales: Voltage Pictures

She Came to Me
Director: Rebecca Miller
Producers: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Rebecca Miller, Damon Cardasis
Key cast: Anne Hathaway, Tahar Rahim, Marisa Tomei, Joanna Kulig, Matthew Broderick
An omnibus drama about love.
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

The Son
Director: Florian Zeller
Key cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Joanna Laurie, Christophe Spadone, Florian Zeller
Peter’s busy life with a new partner and their baby is thrown into disarray when his ex-wife Kate turns up with their teenage son, Nicholas.
Sales: Embankment (international); Cross City Films and CAA Media Finance (U.S.)

True Things
Director: Harry Wootliff
Producers: Tristan Goligher, Ruth Wilson, Ben Jackson, Jude Law
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Tom Burke
An adaptation of Deborah Kay Davies’ book “True Things About Me” follows Kate, whose chance sexual encounter with a charismatic stranger awakens her.
Sales: The Bureau Sales

Untitled Pau Gasol Docuseries
Director: Oriol Bosch
Producers: PG Prods., RTG Features and THINK450
Key cast: Pau Gasol
Series chronicles Gasol, the twotime NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and six-time NBA All-Star, as he winds down his professional career.
Sales: RTG Features (worldwide minus Spain)

The Tank
Director: Scott Walker
Producers: Matthew Metcalfe, Scott Walker
Key cast: TBD
On the Oregon coast in 1978, a couple inherit an abandoned property but unknowingly unleash a long dormant creature, fiercely protective of its environment.
Sales: Cornerstone