May December

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘May December’

After a rain-soaked start the sun came out for the second week of Cannes, mirroring how business and deal-making brightened as the festival progressed.

Sellers reported buyers were active but cautious and were taking their time to agree deals on completed movies given the challenges facing both the theatrical and streaming markets as well as the ongoing strike by the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) and the threat of action from both SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild Of America (DGA). Many Cannes attendees believed that actors and directors are likely to strike, with a slow summer ahead for new shoots.

Production start dates on packages were vague or earmarked for late 2023 or early 2024 and beyond and some companies have been looking to relocate productions outside the US to work with talent who are unaffiliated to US guilds. Although given how intertwined the US and international business is, that may be hard to realise. 

“Buyers were more careful [this year],” said Sarah Lebutsch, managing director of international sales at the UK’s Independent Entertainment, whose buzzy market titles included Frankie Goes To Hollywood biopic Relax. “Post-pandemic, people needed to replenish their slate. Now, with inflation and what’s going on in the world, the urgency is less.”

Many buyers commented on the high prices being asked for arthouse films at a time when theatrical is still recovering and demand has dampened from streamers. Geminiano Pineda at Mexico’s Cine Canibal said: “Market prices have generally gone up considerably. Many of the selected films start with asking prices that are too high and, depending on reviews, they are adjusted in most cases.”

”We did a tonne of business,” said Todd Olsson, president of international sales for the US’ Highland Film Group, whose slate includes Russell Crowe crime thriller Sleeping Dogs. “We came to market with a set of films that we know are going in a certain timeframe and we wanted to make sure they can get financed.”

Key deals

As of Tuesday May 30, Netflix’s $11m acquisition of North American rights to Todd Haynes’ Competition title May December was the biggest deal to be announced, despite the talk a week earlier of the streamers’ retrenchment from film acquisitions. But, along with Prime Video’s reported acquisition of streaming rights to Karim Ainouz’s Firebrand, it does signal a more cost-conscious era of opportunistic buying. Rather than acquiring all global rights, Netflix and Amazon tended to pick up titles for specific territories or partner with theatrical buyers on pay-1 deals.

“It’s difficult for any of us to really see through what the strategy is for streamers currently,” said Independent’s Lebutsch. “What they do pick up is not always in line with the pointers they give us in the meetings and what they say they are looking for.” 

“When we speak to them, period movies are kind of a no no,” she added, in reference to Prime Video’s pending deal for Firebrand, the story of the end of the marriage of Alicia Vikander’s Catherine Parr to Jude Law’s Henry VIII. 

Beyond the streamers, both Mubi and Neon have taken North American rights to three Cannes movies each, with firm theatrical commitments from Mubi.  (Mubi bought multiple territories on Aki Kaurismaki’s Fallen Leaves and two Un Certain Regard titles, Felipe Gálvez’ The Settlers and Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents. Neon picked up Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner Anatomy Of A Fall, Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days and Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams.)

Elsewhere, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest sold widely to key territories through A24. Jude Law-starrer Firebrand sold out internationally, with STX International handling the UK and Sony Pictures most remaining overseas markets.

There has been plenty of content on offer at the market, with buyers searching for completed films as they stockpile in the eventuality the strike will endure for several more months. The consensus is the strike will stretch well into August or September. Asia Muci, Signature Entertainment’s UK head of international distribution, noted pre-sales were happening, but with buyers asking for contingency plans. “We were pre-selling a lot. A couple of buyers were asking for slightly different payment terms – so 10% on signature and 10% on start of principal photography due to the strike,” she said.

UK documentary specialist Dogwoof’s CEO Anna Godas felt the strike has “definitely opened a window” of opportunity for sellers such as themselves who aren’t dependent on US productions. She says Dogwoof agreed “more theatrical deals than we expected” at the market.

Content boom

The recurring message from the execs with whom Screen has spoken was that the market was spectacularly overrun with packages this year, making it difficult to get the attention of the inundated buyers. Reasons for this varied: some said sellers saved key packages for Cannes, rather than either the European or American Film Markets, the May 2 start of the WGA strike also meant writers scrambled to finish projects just before Cannes, and there was also a sense that talent who had worked for years on long TV projects were keen for the short, sharp creative refresh an indie film could give them. 

“The market and buyers were just so overwhelmed,” reflected Lebutsch. “They hadn’t had a chance to read everything that they wanted to read. The market is not finished and we are all going to be doing more over the coming week or weeks as buyers to catch up on some projects.”

“Everyone felt like there was too much product out there,” added Muci, who observed Cannes was Signature’s “busiest yet”.

Among package deals announced at the market, Mister Smith Entertainment sold multiple territories on the US comedy Hot Mess, set to start shooting early next year with Emma Roberts, including to Vertical for North America.

Amazon Prime Video was also reportedly set to pre-buy international rights, excluding Germany, to Liam Neeson action sequel Ice Road 2: Road To The Sky in a deal said to be worth around $17m.

Strong territories 

There was plenty of debate about who exactly are the younger, bankable stars who can open films, given that names like Gerrard Butler, Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were still headlining key sales packages. But a clear genre and are a recognisable cast remain the key draws for buyers. “Don’t give us anything for mixed audiences, or something that is not a clear proposition,” was the feedback Muci had from buyers, with crime comedy Riff Raff, starring Brian Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Dustin Hoffman and Gabrielle Union a particularly popular title.

Territory-wise, UK sellers have said the appetite for commercial titles has been strongest from buyers in the UK, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, Russia and Latin America. Within Latin America, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina were the busiest according to Spanish and Latin American sellers, alhough there was a sense that after a busy Berlin, Latin American buyes had a much quieter Cannes. 

Muci felt the US was “active, but slightly slower in terms of being able to commit, because of a lot of uncertainty around the pay-1 window”.

Asia in focus

For many sellers, China hasn’t performed as strongly as had been hoped, despite mainland buyers attending Cannes for the first time since the pandemic.

“China is working under increasingly difficult circumstances,” said Lebutsch. “There’s always the problem of censorship, and I think that is becoming harder and harder in terms of what can be released. There are lots of rules against violence and too much blood, gore, sex, drugs, corrupt authorities. They just cannot be released in China, so they either need to see the finished film, or at least a promo that gives them a very good idea to really assess what the film contains and where they can be released.”

Lebutsch also noted the challenge of China’s constantly changing quota system, that limits the number of foreign films allowed into the local market on revenue-sharing terms.

However, other Asian countries were back in business at Cannes, combining a more significant presence with hot new projects and signals of intent to ramp up production across the region.

Japan unveiled a long-awaited incentive to attract international productions to the country and Indonesia launched a $10m co-production film fund. An ambitious film network promoting cooperation between seven Asian countries, including Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, was also announced at the Cannes market.

Deals on Asian features in Official Selection such as Japan’s Monster and Korean titles Cobweb, Hopeless and In Our Day were numerous and Malaysian horror Tiger Stripes scooped the top Critics’ Week prize.

New projects introduced to buyers that generated buzz during the market included Ip Man 5, led by Hong Kong star Donnie Yen; The Roundup: Punishment, the latest in a franchise that topped the box office in South Korea last year; and Japan’s The Box Man, directed by influential filmmaker Gakuryu Ishii and starring Masatoshi Nagase.