Thankfully, the 63rd Cannes Film Festival marketplace is finally underway. Because who knew how much more pre-fest turmoil — freakish waves that washed over the outdoor areas of beachfront restaurants, a belch from the Iceland volcano that rerouted air travelers, and the abrupt exit of Bob Berney from Apparition — anyone could tolerate. But it perfectly set the stage for a festival marketplace expected to be topsy-turvy, with no sure things in sight.
“There are no real hot items, and there probably won’t be any bidding wars. You’ve got a lot of people throwing out fertilizer in hopes of making projects real, and American companies that will use the PR stage to bang the drum and remind people they exist by announcing films that probably won’t happen,” one top distribution honcho tells Deadline. That blunt assessment doesn’t stop sellers arriving filled with optimism that there’s a renewed overseas appetite that wasn’t there last year for films. That is, films which are studio-caliber projects with strong elements and reasonable pricetags. Sellers will also be going into this market buoyed by the rise in prices at last month’s MIP-TV festival. And the good news for indie distributors is that Hollywood studios have reduced their production slates by 20%-25%.
WME’s Graham Taylor tells us: “The marketplace is returning and has gotten better quarter by quarter over the last year,” said WME Global’s Graham Taylor. “The international business is getting hot again. We’ve greenlit a dozen movies in the last year, and expect to close the financing at Cannes on another dozen that will go later this year.”
We all know that Cannes is really two festivals. There are competition films — most will barely get theatrical releases, many will go directly DVD or VOD — and then there is the commercial product being marketed. The gulf between market and competition films is widening. Buyers are more deliberate about making decisions, wary of any product except films they know they can sell. On the other hand, foreign sales companies still use Cannes’ PR venue to float talent-attached projects that very often come as a surprise to the agents of stars whose celebrity is being used to sell the films. Lucky for those sales companies sending out press releases that most festival reporters don’t bother to fact-check before publishing.
For instance, news about Sean Penn starring in This Must Be The Place broke at last year’s festival, when director Paolo Sorrentino was president of the Un Certain Regard jury. It has been trotted out as a breathless scoop this week, because UTA is working to close remaining territories. The good news is that the film is now a reality and will likely mark Penn’s return to acting after a long sabbatical.
The only competition expected to make a real splash with buyers is Biutiful, the new film by Babel director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which CAA is selling. Some feel that domestic prospects could be limited because the film is in Spanish. But it also could break deal records in Latin American territories.
In the marketplace, those film packages that have buyers really buzzing include:
— The Marc Forster-directed Machine Gun Preacher with Gerard Butler (Russian rights just sold to Film Depot/Volga)
— A 3D reboot of Judge Dredd with Alex Garland scripting, Pete Travis directing, and Reliance and IM Global co-financing the under $50 million budget.
— The Tony Scott-directed Potzdamer Platz, a drama with a probable cast of Javier Bardem, Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham.
— The Madonna-directed W.E., the Darren Aronofsky-produced conspiracy thriller Tangiers, directed by Sean Gullette with Emile Hirsch circling.
— Spring Awakening, with McG directing the musical.
— The Shia LaBeouf-starrer The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman from Mandate Pictures
— The natural disaster drama The Impossible, with Juan Antonio Bayona directing Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.
–The Bruce Willis-Jamie Foxx-starrer Kane and Lynch
— And the Kevin Spacey-Zachary Quinto-starrer Margin Call.
— On the documentary side, The Works International is selling Countdown To Zero, produced by Lawrence Bender and Participant Media, the same team which made An Inconvenient Truth.
— Hanway Films is selling Kon-Tiki 3D based on the true-life adventure of Thor Heyerdahl sailing a raft across the Pacific.
— While we’re on all things 3D, London-based producer Dan Films will be hunting for a sales agent and financiers for its $25 million 3D sci-fi thriller Creeping Zero.
— Studio Canal International is selling UK distributor Optimum’s first in-house production, an updating of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock set in the Mods vs Rockers era English seaside.
Among the finished films looking for distribution is the Peter Weir-directed The Way Back and the Will Ferrell-starrer Everything Must Go, which ICM is showing promo reels of to Cannes buyers. Finished films can sell to North America for millions of dollars, or they could end up selling DVD and TV rights for $125,000-$500,000.
As for competition films, the strongest prestige titles are ones like Blue Valentine, which has The Weinstein Co set as domestic distributor, and Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Oscar-caliber turns as a couple whose marriage is crumbling. The film, which is being sold by Hyde Park, is one of a handful of U.S. films playing in the festival, screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Another title being talked up is Shit Year, which stars Ellen Barkin as an actress in an existential crisis, and is a Director’s Fortnight offering.
“We expect people to go after the undeniable projects,” said UTA’s Rich Klubeck and Rena Ronson. “Last year was a flat market and this year will be stronger, but still selective. There is an emphasis on higher end films with strong elements, and distinctive ideas. We expect for those kind of compelling projects to get made, but people aren’t signing on for anything less than that. It’s survival of the fittest.”
One trend that will continue: foreign buyers no longer make decisions based on domestic distribution deals because that market has dropped through the floor. Sellers say that, at one time, a presale to the US could mean 40% of your budget. That dropped to 25%, and domestic distribs are pre-buying less and less.
“It used to be that you landed a domestic distributor before your foreign sales kicked in, but the market for domestic pre-buying got so bad that international companies stopped waiting,” one top agent tells us. “The good thing here is, the appetite for films has increased overseas. We saw that happening in Berlin and it’s really healthy. They need movies.”
Sellers are hoping buyers snap up product because a strong showing in territorial sales replenishes the coffers of financiers who’ll then have the resources to fund the next batch of films. This would keep the turnaround going. Still, who knows how reliable the presales market will be? Sales estimates once considered the norm have become almost meaningless. Even hot titles can’t count on getting much more than one third of their budgets from pre-sales worldwide. Of the Western European territories, only France still pre-buys. There’s no rule of thumb.
Nicole Mackey, EVP of nternational sales at Fortissimo Films, tells Deadline: “There are still thankfully a huge amount of distributors in Germany and France. But there are not so many in Spain and Italy.” Spain has softened price-wise due to piracy eating away at its DVD market. Comedies and rom-coms have become a tough sell in Italy. The strength of the dollar is also likely to be an issue, certainly for European buyers. The Asian market – Japan (once the second most lucrative pre-sale market behind the U.S.), Taiwan and Korea – has collapsed completely.
Though it’s always harder for specialty films, it’s less so for filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen and Ken Loach, each of whom keep their budgets down, and generally do business with the same offshore and domestic partners over and over. It’s a model for these times. “I think that budgets have come down,” Goldcrest Films head of sales Penny Wolf said. “Everybody across the board linked to financing of films accepts this and has been forced to adapt accordingly.”