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U.S. Agencies Court International Distributors as Market Consolidation Puts Domestics in Disarray

CAA WME UTA Cannes 2022
WME Independent / UTA / CAA

As the global film industry emerges from the worst of the pandemic — and wide-ranging consolidation in the U.S. puts studio and streaming strategies in disarray — representatives for CAA, UTA and WME Independent say international distributors are more important than ever to their businesses.

That claim will be put to the test at this week’s Cannes Film Festival, where a chaotic domestic landscape, and the absence of China and Russia, could put other international distributors in a good spot after a pandemic-fueled streaming boom saw global deals for films like “CODA” cut these players out.

“What we know is that people who are going into the marketplace are setting up their movies not relying on the U.S. market presenting itself,” one senior agent tells Variety. “I’m not going to say it’s as bad as Russia and China, but really, in their financing plan, there’s a really low expectation coming in from the U.S.”

To that end, the films in the market are “very in sync with what the international community has always been looking for,” says Rena Ronson, partner and co-head of independent film at UTA. “We want a healthy global marketplace, and the bottom line is that we need it and the industry needs it. I’m glad that there are so many projects going out there right now that can help support it.”

Adds Jim Meenaghan, partner and co-head of independent film and the head of motion pictures business affairs at UTA: “The international buyers are buying and they want to buy their territories. After ‘CODA,’ they’re not giving them up when the streamer shows up later, so presales will become real.”

With the abrupt exits of Michael DeLuca and Pam Abdy at MGM, and confusion as to how deals will be structured following Amazon’s $8.5 billion acquisition of the studio, it’s unlikely MGM will be particularly active, insiders say. Similarly, WarnerMedia is in the process of outlining its post-Discovery strategy, and there are still question marks around the demarcation between Warner Bros. and HBO Max fare. Meanwhile, as Netflix continues to grapple with the fallout of a choppy quarter that saw a drop in subscribers and its share price in free fall, most agents aren’t holding their breath for much activity from the streamer.

“The market has been maybe quieter because of these major mergers in the last few months,” says Alex Walton, co-head of WME Independent. “They have to get their business plans and mandates in line before they go out and start buying.”

Agents do say, however, that independents and theatrical distributors are stepping up to the plate — buoyed by the success of indie films like A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — with players like Focus, Searchlight, Sony and Universal becoming more engaged. U.S. distributors that specialize in non-English language fare, such as Neon, Sony Pictures Classics, A24 and IFC Films, are also likely to be active in Cannes, and high expectations endure for arthouse streamer MUBI after its buying spree on the Croisette in 2021. In addition, one new entrant expected in the specialty market this year is Criterion.

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The domestic box office success of A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” will be touted as a success story for theatrical distributors in Cannes. Courtesy Everett Collection

The loss of Russia as a buyer and continued volatility around China, however, is likely to change the landscape for certain types of films, such as mainstream, mid-level actioners. “From a sales standpoint, there’s no bank that can bank or advance against a Russian contract right now, so it’s affecting the way films are put together and affecting the risk financiers are having to take,” says Walton. “There’s no immediate expectation for that to change in the next couple of years, so that affects [sellers].”

The executive also questions how a movie like Lionsgate’s “Moonfall” could be made now without the backing of China, which is increasingly cutting itself off from Hollywood blockbusters.

CAA Media Finance co-head Ben Kramer takes a more laissez-faire approach to the international fluctuations. “China’s down and Russia’s down, [but other countries are] really backing their SVOD and giving theatrical distributors more backing to go and make more aggressive offers, and that’s happening in France and Germany. And theatrical coming back is obviously a big deal in Latin America, U.K. and other places. These things are always rising and falling separately and the budgets maybe come down for a bit and swell for a bit.”

As for the kinds of projects hitting the market, Kramer observes a “pretty broad swathe of movies that are actually working” — all of which boils down to pricing and the right filmmaker.

“When we look at the movies we’re bringing, there’s a pretty wide variety, not just on pricing but of genre and approach and really what that’s about is that it’s for different audiences. There are the big wide audience movies, but there are also things that are more specialized, with more auteur directors.”

CAA’s slate includes the Riz Ahmed-led adaptation of “Hamlet” (co-repped on domestic with WME Independent, with the latter selling internationally); Katy Perry animated musical “Melody”; Michelle Pfeiffer drama “Wild Four O’Clocks”; and Susan Sarandon and Bette Midler-starring “The Fabulous Four.” Variety understands a new Paul Greengrass project is also in the process of being assembled.

UTA, meanwhile, is bringing Jodie Comer sci-fi thriller “The End We Start From,” Jennifer Hudson’s “Breathe” and Sarandon drama “Tunnels” to market. WME Independent’s slate includes Greek auteur Christos Nikou’s “Fingernails” and romantic comedy “Maybe I Do,” starring Diane Keaton, Sarandon and William H. Macy.

The biggest problem facing agencies right now, however, is the availability of talent. Most agencies have been working until the very last minute before the market to secure talent who can realistically make start dates on movies.

“It’s difficult to get actors that are available between TV and film,” says one senior agent. “Everyone’s working, and everyone’s working on the directing side. There aren’t available people.”