Once upon a time, Todd Haynes’ hot Cannes Competition title “May December” — a psychological drama based on the Mary Kay Letourneau case, starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore — would already have a North American distributor. (A source placed its budget just under $20 million.) However, we no longer live in a world where buyers will overpay for a film before they can gauge its theatrical value: The risk is just too great.
That’s why sellers CAA and UTA opted to not show the film to distributors before the festival. Instead, they’re betting that an enthusiastic response from Cannes media and audiences will boost its sale price.
“People are being skittish about paying top dollar for a movie as easily as they did in the past,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. At Cannes, SPC will screen the Pedro Almodovar gay western short “Strange Way of Life” starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal; it will be released in the fall.
“May December” presold a handful of international territories, which mitigates some of the risk. Sellers hope that still represents a viable business model.
“It gives us continued confidence that there are equity investors willing to take chances on original stories like this, ” the agent said. “And when a film like this works, it helps support our independent business and hopefully make investors a little less risk averse.”
To understand buyers’ caution, look no further than Cannes 2022 when Ruben Ostlund’s English-language comedy “Triangle of Sadness” made an $8 million domestic sale to Neon before it took home the Palme d’Or. Despite strong reviews and three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, the movie topped out at $4.6 million domestic and $25.6 million worldwide. Ostlund is this year’s jury president.
Sophie Mas (“The Witch,” “Call Me By Your Name”), who is Portman’s producing partner at their new banner MountainA and a producer on “May December,” says the film turned out better than they could’ve imagined. “It’s our job to take bets and then to know that it’s going to be great,” she said. “And if you don’t have the reaction right away or if you want to find the best partner, you’re taking the chance of waiting more and having a better deal. I think we knew what we had in our hands, and let’s see what happens on the 20th, but I think there’s a reason why we’re confident.”
Another major title in the official selection seeking distribution is Henry VIII’s bodice-ripper “Firebrand,” starring Jude Law as the English monarch and Alicia Vikander as his sixth and final Queen. There’s also potential Oscar submissions in films by Italian auteur Nanni Moretti (comedy “A Brighter Tomorrow”) and French filmmaker Justine Triet (courtroom thriller “Anatomy of a Fall”).
Apple TV+ will bring Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” (October, Paramount), but no one expects streamers to be in active acquisitions mode. Apple TV+, Netflix, and Amazon will check out titles and take meetings, but they all have plenty of in-house content and — as always — they’re unlikely to want movies that are not available for the whole world.
The Cannes market, with its packages and promos, is a different animal. “It’s a finance and pre-selling market. Completed films in the market don’t tend to be super high-end movies,” said Cinetic Media CEO John Sloss, who will sell an Anita Pallenberg documentary showing in Cannes Classics.
David Garrett, CEO for sales agent Mister Smith Entertainment, which reps the fantasy adventure “Riddle of Fire” in Directors Fortnight and will sell Emma Roberts comedy “Hot Mess,” said the market packages steer away from dramas and toward more marketable genres and stars.
Another sales agent described this year’s market as surprisingly eclectic with multiple English-language properties available. “Last year was our biggest Cannes ever, and this year may top that. We’ll see. Fingers crossed,” FilmNation’s SVP of international sales Rob Carney said. “I actually expect this to be a pretty lively market.”
Among the titles for sale are two biopics: “Voyagers,” Sebastian Lelio’s latest starring Andrew Garfield and Daisy Edgar-Jones as stargazers Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, and “Maria,” from director Pablo Larraín and writer Steven Knight, starring Angelina Jolie as Maria Callas. And in a change of pace, Emma Thompson stars in action thriller “The Fisherwoman,” from “Luther” creator Brian Kirk.
The ongoing writers strike led to a rush assembly of packages, but it’s unclear what impact, if any, they will have on the Cannes market. Writing is already locked on many of the packages and international players dominate Cannes. The studios’ prep work could represent a shift in the sellers’ favor; Garrett even speculated that the strike puts an actor on hiatus on a show or movie, they could become available for production on a package in waiting. (Now if directors and actors go on strike, that’s another story.)
The market was already uncertain before the strike. Ask specialty distributors about the state of the North American theatrical market for indie films and they waffle even on generalities. “It’s hopefully heading in the right direction,” said Sloss. “It’s still challenging. Hopefully we will have better evidence later in the summer. People need movies and always will need movies.”
Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen, who bought Oscar-winning “Judy” off a promo reel at Cannes, is looking at Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” (Focus) as the test of “the ongoing dialogue between the specialty market and the audience,” he said. “It’s the blue-chip movie for this audience. If they come back for that, are they going to start coming back? Everybody is not sure.”
Barker said that while they aren’t coming back quickly, “people are coming back to movie theaters for independent movies. Theatrical is the primary.” Still, distributors are adjusting spends and viewing theatrical as a marketing tool for ancillary markets. “The marketplace isn’t responding even when you spend money,” said Cohen.
Sloss said he sees “signs of life” in the turbulent documentary market, he said. Submarine’s Dan and Josh Braun will show footage from the first documentary about Brian Eno, and will screen Nick Broomfield’s Brian Jones documentary in the Cannes market.
“A lot of films look alluring at Cannes,” Barker said. “One of the beauties of Cannes is you can go in and the title is unknown and walk out with something wonderful.”
Title: “May December” (Competition)
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore
Genre: True-crime drama
Seller: CAA and UTA
Buzz: The word is it’s entertaining, accessible, and could be Oscar catnip. Playing in the same slot as last year’s “Triangle of Sadness” doesn’t hurt.
Title: “Firebrand” (Competition)
Director: Karim Ainouz
Stars: Jude Law, Alicia Vikander
Genre: Period bodice-wrapper set in the court of Henry VIII
Seller: CAA and FilmNation (already sold out internationally)
Buzz: The first English-language film from Brazilian director Ainouz, it’s a sales title with a feminist twist and strong performances that could play for specialty distributors.
Title: “Black Flies” (Competition)
Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Stars: Sean Penn, Katherine Waterston, Tye Sheridan
Genre: New York City medical thriller
Seller: WME and CAA; FilmNation international
Buzz: Intense vérité filmmaking that could play for indies.
Title: “A Brighter Tomorrow” (Competition)
Director: Nanni Moretti
Stars: Nanni Moretti, Margherita Buy, Silvio Orlando
Genre: Period family comedy
Buzz: The Cannes auteur’s defense of cinema is his best in years.
Title: “The New Boy” (Un Certain Regard)
Director: Warwick Thornton
Star: Cate Blanchett
Genre: Aboriginal drama
Seller: CAA and UTA
Buzz: Who can resist Blanchett as a renegade nun?
Title: “On Swift Horses” (Promo)
Director: Daniel Minahan
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Jacob Elordi, Will Poulter
Genre: ’50s love triangle set in a gambling milieu
Seller: UTA and Black Bear International
Buzz: Sexy cast and subject makes a heady mix that could appeal to a younger demo.
Title: “Voyagers” (Package)
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Stars: Andrew Garfield and Daisy Edgar-Jones
Genre: Period biopic
Buzz: Strong script and cast could even make astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan seem sexy.
Title: “Maria” (Package)
Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Angelina Jolie
Genre: Music biopic
Buzz: Writer Steven Knight reimagines the final days of opera legend Maria Callas.
Title: “The Fisherwoman” (Package)
Director: Brian Kirk
Stars: Emma Thompson
Genre: Action thriller
Seller: CAA, Augenschein, and Mossbank
Buzz: A real change of pace for Thompson.
Title: “Hope” (Package)
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Stars: Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender
Genre: Korean-language sci-fi survival thriller
Buzz: Elements look globally commercial.
Title: “The Life of Chuck” (Package)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Tom Hiddleston and Mark Hamill
Genre: Three-act time-goes-backward comedy
Seller: WME and FilmNation
Buzz: Great cast in a Stephen King short story.
Title: “The Book of Solutions” (Fortnight)
Director: Michel Gondry
Stars: Pierre Niney, Vincent Elbaz, Blanche Gardin
Genre: Fable about artists
Buzz: Fortnight placement for name French auteur suggests a small footprint.
Title: “The Invite” (Package)
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Stars: Amy Adams, Paul Rudd, Tessa Thompson
Genre: Sexy black comedy
Seller: UTA and FilmNation
Buzz: Based on the Goya-winning Spanish film “Sentimental,” this one could hit a commercial funny bone.
Title: “Lords of War” (Package)
Director: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Bill Skarsgård
Genre: Action thriller
Seller: CAA and FilmNation
Buzz: A buzzy sequel to the 2005 film.
Title: “The One” (Promo)
Director: Jaki Bradley
Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Melissa Barrera, Lana Condor
Genre: Horror meets reality TV
Seller: UTA, WME, and HanWay Films (international)
Buzz: Described as an “erotic nightmare” and love triangle with a hot young cast.
Title: “Shell” (Package)
Director: Max Minghella
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Kate Hudson
Genre: Futuristic psychological thriller
Seller: Black Bear International, WME, and CAA
Buzz: A “Handmaid’s Tale” reunion with genre appeal.
Title: “Bride Hard” (Package)
Director: Simon West
Stars: Rebel Wilson
Buzz: “Bridesmaids” meets “Die Hard.”
Title: “They Found Us” (Package)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Joel Kinnaman
Genre: Alien abduction sci-fi
Buzz: A return to roots for the “District 9” director.
Title: “Midwinter Break” (Package)
Director: Polly Findlay
Stars: Lesley Manville, Ciarán Hinds
Genre: Prestige drama
Seller: Protagonist Pictures
Buzz: Debut film and romance at a crossroads based on an acclaimed Irish novel.