EXCLUSIVE: In another deal that demonstrated the vibrancy of the Virtual Cannes Market, Focus Features is in final talks to fund and distribute worldwide Armageddon Time, the James Gray-directed drama that has Robert De Niro, Oscar Isaac, Donald Sutherland, Anne Hathaway and Cate Blanchett poised to star. Sources said that the Focus commitment will be in the $15 million range, meaning that’s what Gray will have to work with to make a movie that will begin production at the start of 2021 with the intention to shoot in New York.
Wild Bunch International introduced the RT Features film to buyers at virtual Cannes market and repped international rights. CAA Media Finance, which arranged financing, represented the film’s domestic distribution rights. WBI and CAA Media Finance co-repped China rights.
While many wondered what the appetite of global buyers after the pandemic as they headed into Virtual Cannes, the results so far have been as strong as many recent markets held annually on the Croisette. The Antoine Fuqua-directed Will Smith-starrer Emancipation was a record setting festival pre-buy for Apple, in a deal worth over $120 million when the backend buyouts are factored. NEON and Topic Studios took U.S. and the world sold out on Spencer, the Pablo Larrain-directed drama that stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana. Paramount acquired North American rights for around $10 million to the Lee Daniels-directed The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, a film that is expected to be in the mix in the upcoming Oscar race. It is in postproduction. That’s to name just a few of the titles that sold big.
Gray wrote Armageddon Time based on his childhood memories, and returns for action with RT Features following their recent collaboration on Ad Astra, the Brad Pitt space thriller that co-starred Sutherland. RT Features’ Rodrigo Teixeira will produce along with Gray and Anthony Katagas, with Lourenço Sant’Anna and Rodrigo Gutierrez executive producing.
Gray scripted a big-hearted coming-of-age story that explores friendship and loyalty against the backdrop of an America poised to elect Ronald Reagan as president. When Deadline introduced the project with that killer cast three weeks ago, Gray said the film is the opposite of the lonely, dark void that was at the center of Ad Astra.
“[It] is very much about people, about human emotions and interactions between people, and I want it to be filled with warmth and tenderness,” Gray told Deadline. “In some sense, yes it’s about my childhood, but an illustration of familial love really on every level. I’m of the belief that most people do their best and that they try their best under difficult circumstances and in some sense that’s a beautiful thing and very moving to me. In a grander sense if I may sound a little sententious and pretentious, history and myth always begin in the microcosm of the personal and though you are using something so small and specific in your life, the result can become universal if it accesses real emotion. I’ve tried to move to the opposite of a cold dark space. I want to be political and historic about it, but fill it with love and warmth. What happened with me, very simply, I got in big trouble when I was around 11, though the boys are 12 in the movie, and the story is about my movement from the public education that I got into private school and a world of privilege. This film is about what that meant for me and how lucky I was, and how unlucky my friend was and about that break meant for me and what it meant for him.”
The drama confronts the class clash of the haves and have-nots. “It’s symbolic about what the school represented at the time, entrenched in this white protestant ethic,” Gray said. “I found it very foreign to me, a product of the public school system in New York City of the ‘70s. It’s about that transition and how it reflects on what the American society was and sadly still is. How we are separated along the lines of class and ethnicity. The film is really about that, my transition in school from one to the other. The implications of it are quite large. The world really became clearly divided to me, based on the haves and the have-nots. I didn’t write the script last week, but rather many months ago and it’s weird in that a lot of what we’re seeing right now is playing out of many of the themes that it was my ambition to explore in the first place. This obsession I have with examining American ideas of class mobility, to do it in a context that is humane with social impact.”
Gray said that aside from getting him away from trouble, the school brought him face to face with attitudes that are relevant right now. “My recollection when I think back on that moment, which is 1980 as the time frame of the movie, and what an important year it was in the history of the country and for me personally and how in some ways, I was pretty damn lucky,” he said. ” My parents who were not wealthy at all as a working class family, used all the levers they could, to be able to go to this school. Which simultaneously saved my life, but also awakened me to real racism and anti-Semitism. In some ways, the idea of presenting a story like this within the context of this family, told with great warmth, is sometimes your greatest Trojan Horse, to involve people emotionally that way. And story is a great weapon to be able to deliver some pretty harsh news.”
De Niro, Sutherland, Hathaway, Blanchett, Gray, and RT Features are represented by CAA. Hathaway is also represented by Management 360. Isaac is represented by WME and Inspire Entertainment.