EXCLUSIVE: In a move that will surely swing some of the focus from awards season launches to the acquisitions market at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival, U.S. and foreign distributors will be bidding for Knives Out, a contemporary murder mystery that will star Daniel Craig as a detective assigned to solve the crime, with Rian Johnson directing.
Craig has committed to star in November, while his James Bond 25 film regroups following the exit of director Danny Boyle. Johnson, who wrote the script and is producing with partner Ram Bergman, will make the movie before setting off to direct a new trilogy in the Star Wars universe. Knives Out will be the first film he’ll direct since 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which grossed over $1.3 billion.
The film is best described as a modern day murder mystery in the classic whodunit style, infused with Johnson’s original voice that informed films from Brick to Looper.
The film came out of nowhere before major buyers received the script last night and gave every indication this will be a fevered auction. Longtime collaborators Johnson and Bergman confirmed for Deadline the details and sales plans for Knives Out, which they’ll finance through a new company they’ve hatched but haven’t yet named.
CAA Media Finance will represent the film’s North American distribution rights, and FilmNation will handle international rights, with CAA and FilmNation co-repping China. Those parties brokered in similar fashion at Cannes the deals for 355, the international spy thriller that Simon Kinberg will direct with Jessica Chastain producing and starring with Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Bingbing Fan and Lupita Nyong’o. Unlike 355, Knives Out is already in prep with a completed script. The film has a star as its fulcrum, and the filmmakers will move quickly to set the six to eight major roles around Craig.
Knives Out will replicate 355 in another respect: it will give offshore independent distributors the kind of star-driven A-list film they usually don’t get a shot at these days. Every territory on 355 was sold during Cannes in a flurry of about 30 different deals closed in less than a week. The expectation is that Knives Out will provoke a similar buyer reaction. Deals will be brokered at Toronto, and Johnson and Bergman will be there to meet with buyers.
Johnson told Deadline he has been an Agatha Christie nut since his teens, sparking to her richly drawn characters and the twists and turns that drove her whodunits. For a decade, he has been framing in his mind how he would make his own murder mystery, and over the summer he scripted his contemporary version of the locked door mansion murder mystery.
Boyle’s abrupt exit from Bond 25 gave Johnson and Bergman an opening to pursue Craig, if he was up for squeezing in a movie before returning to his 007 franchise. When Craig sparked to the script and signed on, a hot package came together, just in time for the Toronto market. Besides the Bond films, both Johnson and Bergman followed Craig’s career closely since his strong turns that included Road to Perdition, Munich, Layer Cake, Defiance and Logan Lucky. They’ve seen his stage turns, and Johnson has met Craig socially several times. It made for a quick and easy alliance on Knives Out.
“I have been a huge fan and always wanted to work with him and as I worked on the script, trying to get it right, Ram and I were wringing our hands over who could be the detective,” Johnson said. “Then, serendipitously, we heard Daniel might have a small window, and it worked out. He’s an actor of extraordinary range, and we are looking forward to the fun of finding that modern detective, and collaborating with Daniel on creating a new Poirot.”
Johnson said that while he enjoys playing in the studio sandbox with Star Wars, he and Bergman liked the prospect of being part of this entrepreneurial independent process where they launch a new company with a film they own, with the help of CAA Media Finance and FilmNation, whose principal Glen Basner worked with them on the films Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Johnson’s breakout, Looper.
“Glen sold all of Rian’s movies with the exception of Star Wars,” Bergman said. “We went to Cannes with Looper and watched it sell very well. This is a different time in the business, but we are excited to come in as the financiers and producers. Our priority is to find the best distributor in each territory, and to spend time with the buyers figuring out what’s best for the film.”
The auction will inject excitement into the first days of Toronto alongside acquisition titles playing the festival, and the auction provides a boost for the increasingly fragile foreign indie distribution ecosystem.
CAA reps both Johnson and Craig.