Cannes: More Domestic Activity Than Expected; Offshore Soft; Russia In A “Panic”

Heading into Cannes, the refrain was roundly the same as the one we heard going into the last big market, February’s EFM in Berlin. Whether it be from sales people, buyers or producers both foreign and domestic, there was a lament that the big projects had failed to materialize and that despite hopes to the contrary, this would be a very soft sojourn on the Croisette. One buyer called the situation a “catastrophe.” It is simply harder to pull together exciting packages, execs said, as talent attachments take longer and numbers are harder to hit. Still, if international dealmaking was in line with expectations, there was a jolt in domestic deals from the get-go. On the eve of the market, Paramount spent a record $20M on Story Of Your Life. The deal for the Denis Villeneuve-directed sci-fi pic starring Amy Adams was brokered by Lava Bear’s David Linde with WME Global’s Graham Taylor and FilmNation’s Glen Basner. Basner was also in the middle of The Weinstein Co’s landmark $7M Berlin deal for The Imitation Game. That acquisition was the real news out of Berlin, but it did not have a knock-on effect of jump-starting what ended up to be a pretty tepid EFM.

On the contrary, the sunny skies in Cannes, after two years of non-stop downpours, were matched by a solid flow of domestic pre-buys. Among the bigger deals, TWC entered exclusive negotiations on Bold Films’ Owen Wilson/Pierce Brosnan-starrer The Coup. It landed the John Carney-directed Sing Street, and paid $12M for Lion, a Luke Davies-scripted adaptation of the Saroo Bierley book A Long Way Home to be directed by Garth Davis. The company is also in exclusive negotiations to acquire The Water Diviner, the helming debut of Russell Crowe. Upstart A24 bought U.S. rights to Room, an adaptation of the Emma Donoghue novel that has Brie Larson starring and will begin production this fall. Open Road bought Bold Films’ Nightcrawler in a $4.5M deal made with CAA and WME Global (Sierra/Affinity is selling international). And, Focus Features lit up for Bastille Day, the actioner that Studiocanal is selling with Idris Elba in the lead.

Among the movies in Competition, Sony Pictures Classics was typically acquisitive. It bought Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall; Argentinian filmmaker Damián Szifron’s darkly comic Wild Tales which Warner Bros is handling in Spain, France and Latin America; and Bertrand Bonello’s biopic Saint Laurent. Also from the Official Selection, Danish Western The Salvation went to IFC and Aton Egoyan’s The Captive was snatched by A24.

On the overseas front, some of the titles that got international buyers bustling were Lionsgate’s A Monster Calls by director Juan Antonio Bayona; Bloom’s Sea Of Trees with Gus Van Sant directing Matthew McConaughey; eOne’s Colin Firth/Helen Mirren-starrer Eye In The Sky and Trumbo with Bryan Cranston; IM Global’s Forsaken from director Jonas Cuaron, and Jackie Chan-starrer Civilian; and Studiocanal’s Legend with Tom Hardy playing the Kray twins.

Asian buyers were out in force and reports back from sales companies are that they were active. “Asia is still great,” says Fortitude’s Nadine de Barros. I’m told, however, that some key territories were less active this time around. Germany is being very selective. That’s down in part to problems in the TV sector. Charlotte van Weede at eOne says, “I hear buyers complain there’s not that much in the market for them to buy and that there would not be that many German deals done because they are not getting TV backing at this early stage.” The offers eOne received on its two big titles were “much more in line with them feeling comfortable. They burned themselves quite a bit recently and they’re having to take the punt.” In France, buyers like SND and TF1 were active, but there is ongoing concern over Canal Plus which is the film business’ biggest investor and has had its head turned by a serious battle over sports rights with upstart BeIN Sport.

Meanwhile, over in the fast-burn Russian market, buyers are in a bit of a panic. With the ongoing turmoil in Crimea and distribution contracts being re-jiggered after the annexation by Russia, there’s also the fear that a 50% cap on imported movies could pass in the Duma. EOne’s Harold Van Lier says, “I think they’re paralyzed and kind of not moving. Most companies are either getting really low offers because buyers are taking advantage of the panic to lowball; or they are just panicking themselves.” De Barros agrees, “Russia was disappointing, as everyone thought it was going to be.” A Russian producer I queried this week doesn’t think the quota will pass, however.

Van Lier tells me he’s seen this happen with Russia before. There was a market a few years back, he says, when Russian buyers were offering $50,000 across the board in an effort to try and bring prices down. “There is a cash problem and problems politically. A lot of Russians are trying to get money out of Russia and they use whatever they can to reduce their MGs. We find it tougher with films that have commercial potential to rely on paper contracts with them. They try to take advantage of the situation and if we’ve got to wait and sell later because they’re giving us shit offers, it’s less vital for us. In our model, we’ve pre-bought much of the world. We’re not not bringing prices down, just waiting.” Russia is an increasingly important box office market for studios and indies. The audiences are keen on fantasy, action and animation, but while movies often open big, they see drops of about 60-70% in the second and third weekends.

Overall, folks hope that the group of names foreign buyers tend to depend upon will expand. Ahead of the market, Jim Seibel of Lotus Entertainment which is selling Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram For The King with Tom Hanks, and Halle Berry vehicle Kidnap, told me, “Stars are born by the studios and can add to the roster. As this matures, the indies are going to need to have that ability too.” Distributors, he says, “have to get out of the mindset” of waiting for an actor to be hot after the fact.

IM Global’s Stuart Ford is convinced there are more good scripts around because the studios are making fewer movies than ever and “we see constant flow of top tier producers” taking product that’s been developed at studios and setting them up in the independent space. Then again, he told me before the market, “There’s good and there’s great. The blow-your-socks-off are hard to find.” But he believes there’s a “flight to quality” and that “fewer movies is a healthy thing for the industry. Maybe not for small sales companies, but generally there is less clutter and higher quality material.” IM Global’s big titles here also included Eran Creevy’s Autobahn and Billy Ray’s The Secret In Their Eyes with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Ultra VOD is on the rise in the U.S., but VOD is still not nearing maturity overseas, and foreign sales agents have been praying for the day when the likes of Netflix and Amazon penetrate in territories that used to represent up to 10% of a film’s budget but which have now deteriorated. Netflix’s announcement this week that it is moving into six new European territories including France and Germany is welcome news. However, there’s still a keen desire to see it dig deeper and into places like Spain and Italy which have been buying far less since the financial crisis.

The market is basically wrapped here now, though we expect some activity to carry over into the next days while many offshore deals that made won’t be announced until later on down the line. In the meantime, the sun continues to shine and several movies have yet to screen in Competition and UCR. Critics’ Week hands out its prizes tonight.

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