At Cannes Film Festival, there are fewer all-night bidding wars and splashy movie sales

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CANNES, France — As any seasoned festivalgoer will tell you, the weather in Cannes is notoriously unpredictable, a mix of intermittent blazing sun and stormy rain clouds. The same could be said of this year’s Cannes Film Festival market, where new challenges and disruptive technology loom over the evolving marketplace. Aside from a handful of anticipated hot titles snapped up during the first week, there were relatively few all-night bidding wars and splashy deals than in previous years.

Perhaps the buzziest commercial movie up for grabs was the female-driven project, “355,” an in-production spy thriller starring Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, Marion Cotillard and Bingbing Fan, with Simon Kinberg (best known for being a producer and a writer on the “X-Men” franchise) directing. The deal, reported to be over $20 million, was made with Universal, and the Chinese company Huayi paid out close to that amount as a co-financier.

“On a general level — and this also applies to financiers — there’s a real polarization going on right now in the film world,” said Stuart Ford, former IM Global chief whose year-old company, AGC Studios, is looking for “true premium content” at the top end of the marketplace.

Ford’s company has come to Cannes with two $100 million budget movies targeted for world-wide release — “Midway,” a WWII epic directed by Roland Emmerich, and “Missing Link,” from animation studio LAIKA with a stellar cast of voices.

An estimated 50% of AGC Studios’ financing involves backing new content providers for television.

“These are tough times for celluloid movies insofar as it’s harder to market them to audiences, since the streaming companies have really become the biggest players in that space,” said Ford. “What that means is that the independent sector — low rank-and-file smaller indie dramas, documentaries and foreign language films that were, for many years, the staple of the Cannes marketplace — has had to adapt very quickly to this new world order.”

With the enormous boom in creative episodic television drama featuring big-name writers, movie stars and directors, comes the inevitable, serious competition to the film market.

‘Shock and Imbalance’

“This year, we’re still in something of a state of shock and imbalance,” said Robert Jones, co-CEO of London-based Fyzz Facility, one of the biggest lenders in the business, with more than 60 titles in 2017. “We’re in a stage where there’s an imbalance in the cost of making films and their actual value in the distributor marketplace.”

“What we’re seeing in the last five years is the migration away from the more middle ground films,” he said. “It’s either big budget franchise pictures or on the other end, crossover arthouse fare or auteur films, with no place for an elevated genre film.”

Take, for example, the 1995 Bryan Singer-directed classic, “The Usual Suspects,” which Robert Jones produced. “I wonder how easy it would be to make that movie today,” Jones said. “It would probably find its home as a TV series because that’s where there are opportunities for that kind of edgy writing that doesn’t necessarily fitting comfortably in any particular box.”

Although financiers aren’t exactly bemoaning the creative rise of TV, theatrical distributors may be less enthusiastic. If there are fewer “A titles” around, or films are being sold at too difficult a price, something has to change.

AGC Studios

A still from the animation feature ‘Missing Link’

Another year-old company, 30WEST, has already begun anticipating a major shift in the entertainment business. 30WEST is currently funding one of Cannes buzziest titles — the Karen Kusama-directed gritty crime thriller, “Destroyer,” starring Nicole Kidman as an LAPD detective, which has just sold to Annapurna Pictures for a reported mid-seven-figure price.

Looking further down the road to see how television and film will be distributed in the future, 30WEST believes evolving technology should allow creators to reach broad, unrestricted audiences with less friction than current models. This also means envisaging new platforms that would prioritize direct-to-consumer methods as has occurred in the fashion and cosmetics industries.

Cannes It Last?

Glitz and glamour aside, is the Cannes Film Festival still a thriving hub of activity for the film marketplace?

According to the biggest players, business is stronger than ever. “There may be fewer total movies in the market at Cannes these days, but there are a greater number of high-quality movies, and the studios, independent distributors and digital platforms continue to fight to acquire them,” said a CEO of a major finance group who wished to remain anonymous.

When it comes to the finished product, however, the Cannes festival can still make or break a film with global media exposure.

“We were lucky enough last year to have a world-wide premiere of [2017 murder mystery] ‘Wind River,’” said Matthew George, CEO of Saavy Entertainment/Acacia Media. “That put us on a pathway of great success that started in Cannes.”

“The way we finance, foreign plays a huge part,” George said. “You really have to look at the package — actors, script directors and mostly the actor and how they will perform basically on a sales basis to foreign territories.”

“We had great talent — Jeremy Renner as the star — but the screenplay was set on an Indian Reservation and was very dark and depressing. I saw it as a film that Warner Bros. would have made in the 70s. A good story is a good story. That’s all you’re looking for — that one great script,” he said.

The changing times have forced some to adjust their approach to the market. “When I first came to Cannes, I was buying films as a distributor,” said Fyzz’s Robert Jones. “You would basically go and see a film and then bid for it. It was a finished film that had somehow been financed without having to go to distributors to pre-buy rights. Today, you have to ask yourself as a financier, ‘How do I keep the level of quality and deal with the fact that, at the moment, there is a slight mismatch of what we can make films for and what people will pay?’”

However, Jones is unequivocal when it comes the festival’s untarnished prestige. “I’ve had films in competition as a producer in Cannes and it’s a great feeling. You’re king for a day, and then you’re quickly booted off the throne. But you bask in that moment and hope that the film is well received,” he said.

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