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Cannes Has Plenty of Titles for Sale, But Fewer of the Ones That Buyers Want

Streamers are pushing distributors to look at the pre-buys, but only the very best will stand a chance in a tough theatrical market.

Terrence Malick's Radegund


Reiner Bajo

The Cannes Film Festival competition began today with the premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” but top North American distributors can’t afford to be distracted. They serve a market in which only the most carefully calibrated selections will thrive — and those who hesitate will almost certainly lose to the streaming buyers. With some of the best stuff already bought, theatrical distributors are forced to to look toward films that have yet to be shot.

Before the festival, HBO Sports scooped up “Diego Maradona,” British documentarian Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to Oscar-winning Cannes hit “Amy.” And after a 20-year symbiotic relationship, SPC acquired Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain & Glory” at the script stage two years ago, which now looks like an early contender for top prizes. SPC now has rights to all his films, and will book repertory Almodovar tributes in many cities around the film’s October opening.

“We’re selective,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who picked up German 2019 Oscar nominee “Never Look Away” two years before it was finished. “We look at what might work theatrically, and with foreign language, the Oscar race is a factor.” Having released two of Ira Sachs’ films (“Love is Strange,” “Married Life”), SPC also nabbed “Frankie,” a European family drama starring Isabelle Huppert, Brendan Gleeson, and Marisa Tomei, on the basis of a screenplay and some early footage.


So far, this has been a difficult year for specialized box office. Of the seven films that crossed $5 million domestic in limited release, only four were dramas: Focus’ “The Mustang,” Viva Pictures’ Hindi-language “Gully Boy,” Roadside Attractions’ Christian title “Run the Race,” and Bleecker Street’s “Hotel Mumbai.”

So while Terrence Malick’s competition title “A Hidden Life” is seeking a buyer — and “Tree of Life” launched at Cannes 2011 to rave reviews and $62 million global box office  — subsequent Malick films left buyers cautious. Some saw “A Hidden Life” footage early on, but before anyone plunks down money for the period drama starring August Diehl as a ‎World War II pacifist, distributors will need to see the finished film with audiences and critics.

Arthouse distributors also are eyeing 25-minute special screening “The Staggering Girl” by Luca Guadagnino and midnight title “Lux Aeterna” by Gasper Noe, although streaming may seem a more natural fit.

Terrence MalickMade in Austin panel, SXSW Festival, Austin, USA - 11 Mar 2017

Terrence Malick at the Made in Austin panel, SXSW Festival 2017

Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

The distributors’ primary focus lies in market presentations. “There are plenty of projects — packages and promos,” said Angel An of Roadside Attractions, which acquired Pathe’s Renee Zellweger vehicle “Judy” with LD Entertainment out of the Cannes market last year. “More mid-size ones, which are hard to value, and a few higher-profiled ones. Acquisitions for us has always been like gem hunting — looking where others don’t and more closely at those others dismiss. Now with big-spending streamers in competition, there’s more pressure for the traditional distributors to pre-buy and we have to be even more careful.”

Among the most appealing are Jane Campion’s “Power of Dog,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elisabeth Moss (Cross City); Matteo Garrone’s long-awaited “Pinocchio,” starring Roberto Benigni; John Madden’s “Operation Mincemeat,” reteaming Colin Firth and “The King’s Speech” producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman (HanWay); Edward Hall’s “Blithe Spirit,” starring Judi Dench (Protagonist); Keira Knightley stars in “Misbehaviour,” opposite Greg Kinnear as 1970 Miss World host Bob Hope (Pathe); and biodocs on choreographer Merce Cunningham, chanteuse Billie Holliday, Led Zeppelin (CAA/Altitude), and Formula 1 racing driver Michael Schumacher (Rocket Science).

Also for sale are films from Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan (Playtime’s “Guest of Honor”), Roman Polanski (Playtime’s “The Officer and the Spy,” starring Jean Dujardin), Jeremie Guez (Protagonist’s “Sound of Philadelphia” starring Matthias Schoenaerts), Gregor Jordan (Cornerstone’s Australian romance “Dirt Music” starring Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund), and Barry Levinson (post-World War II drama “Harry Haft,” starring Ben Foster as a guilt-ridden concentration camp boxer-survivor).

There are also plenty of mainstream selections. These include Roland Emmerich directing VFX spectacular “Moonfall” (AGC); James Marsh’s “Instrumental,” starring Andrew Garfield (Lionsgate); “Cherry,” a post-Marvel movie from the Russo Brothers starring Spider-Man Tom Holland (Endeavor Content); and Damian Szifron’s “Misanthrope” with Shailene Woodley as well as “Down Undercover” with Chris Hemsworth and Tiffany Haddish.

Ana Lily Amirpour is directing a “Cliffhanger” reboot (Rocket Science); “The Stand In” stars Drew Barrymore, directed by Jamie Babbit (The Exchange); Chris Pine stars in Tarik Saleh’s action-thriller “Violence of Action” (STX International); Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson’s “Synchronic” stars Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie (XYZ); Gideon Raff’s psychological thriller based on the bestseller “Turn of Mind” stars Annette Bening and Michelle Pfeiffer (Rocket Science); Corey Finley’s “Bad Education” stars Hugh Jackman (Endeavor Content); Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s “Born to be Murdered” starring John David Washington and Alicia Vikander; husband-and-wife team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly’s “Queenpins” stars Kristen Bell and Leslie Jones as housewife scam artists (Rocket Science); and George Nolfi’s “The Banker” stars Nicholas Hoult, Anthony Mackie, and Samuel L. Jackson, the story of one of the first African-American bankers.

Finally, no self-respecting Cannes market would be complete without a cheesy B-movie from Nic Cage (Richard Stanley’s “Color out of Space,” XYZ) or Johnny Depp, who stars in HanWay’s “Minamata.” Let’s see if anyone wants to buy them.

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