What a long, strange trip it’s been. While no one will say the global film industry has returned to “normal,” this week’s Cannes Film Festival will quite look similar to pre-pandemic days when it kicks off Tuesday. After a drastically pared-down version in 2020 and a 2021 edition that saw business activity overwhelmingly skew virtual, sales agents, financiers, filmmakers, and producers are set to descend on the Croisette in full, in-person force with a sense of excitement and eagerness for the possibilities.
It’s not that last year’s edition was a bust — the virtual market launched sales for projects from Alexander Payne, Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, and Zoë Kravitz — but even the most optimistic of players can’t help but wonder if sales out of Sundance, Cannes, and other festivals might have been even bigger had the gatherings been in person.
“The last few festivals and markets have been huge successes and we all still have the huge question mark of ‘Would they have been even more successful?’ in terms of the level of sales or the enthusiasm of buyers had they seen them in a traditional festival setting with an audience reaction, and we get to do that now,” Dan Guando, SVP of film development and production at Endeavor Content, told IndieWire. Endeavor was behind one of this year’s biggest sales success stories, Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”
That question will get a chance to prove out this week, as the industry will see just how much audience reaction, pressure-cooker sales environments, and late-night dealmaking have been missing compared to the disconnected essence of endless Zoom calls and emails.
“As a seller, it’s an exciting thing to know that the market is paying attention and that we have everyone’s eyes and ears all at the same time,” WME Independent agent Abe Bengio told IndieWire.
And it’s also a chance for the industry to establish a new normal. If Sundance was any indication, theatrical distributors — once severely threatened by the magnitudes-larger budgets of streamers — once again have a shot at securing quality films for theatrical release, followed by streaming and ancillary window opportunities.
The fall of Netflix and the prospect of an industry-wide course correction have changed the landscape. Streamers had already turned to producing and commissioning projects themselves, in order to avoid overpaying for movies in the open market. The recent rule is that streamers will pay any sum necessary for a film, but only if they really want it.
That was the case with Apple’s acquisition of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” out of Sundance in January, part of the company’s focus on feel-good content with awards potential (see “CODA”). That sold for a reported $14 million, about the same price that Amazon paid for “Brittany Runs a Marathon” back in 2019.
“This opens things up,” said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions. “Within a narrow band, films are destined for one of two things: commercial play or awards. There are plenty of great movies to buy that are not awards movies.”
So what is resonating in this topsy-turvy pandemic recovery? Everyone points to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the wholly original genre-bending multiverse comedy from Daniels, as a reason to cheer. The A24 film has grossed $51.8 million since its March 25 release. But the reality is that even modest success for original material like that is a unicorn, in this case, driven by younger audiences, while tentpoles like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” continue to be the most solid bets in cinemas.
The older audience demo is still a question mark, as Los Angeles’ Arclight remains closed and the Westside hub the Landmark is also shuttering. Such theatrical distributors as Sony Pictures Classics, Neon, A24, Focus Features, IFC, Magnolia, and Searchlight will be trawling for product, including potential international Oscar contenders, but some of what they buy will be streaming bound for streaming. Amazon and Netflix still buy targeted foreign-language Cannes titles such as 2019 Oscar-contender “Les Miserables” and 2021 thriller “The Stronghold,” respectively.
Producers and financiers are backing original, cast-driven fare that has the potential to stand out. The best example of that is the near-completed “Maybe I Do” from studio Endeavor Content, a multi-generational comedy starring Emma Roberts, Luke Bracey, Diane Keaton, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and William H. Macy.
At the Cannes market, thrillers, especially of the elevated sort, have a strong showing that speaks to genre films’ continued ability to perform well, whether in theaters, VOD, or on streaming.
Expect much of the headline-grabbing sales activity out of Cannes to center around packages and films that are not in the festival lineup. Many of the most prominent official selections have long been spoken for (A24 has eight at the festival, including Alex Garland’s “Men” and Claire Denis’ “The Stars at Noon”). And some of the hottest available films were scooped up over the last few weeks; MUBI picked up Léa Mysius’s “The Five Devils” and Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave,” while Neon acquired “Broker,” Kore-eda Hirokazu’s follow-up to 2019 Oscar contender “Shoplifters.”
Still up for grabs are “Hunt,” an intense Korean spy thriller marking the directorial debut of “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, who also stars; Arnaud Desplechin’s “Brother and Sister”; the Dardenne brothers’ “Tori and Lokita”; Ethan Coen’s solo documentary “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind,” financed by A24, which is open to the right offer from a streamer; and perhaps the highest-profile English-language buy, class satire “Triangle of Sadness,” from “The Square” Palme winner Ruben Östlund, which has been held back to create heat at Cannes.
Truth is, while Neon’s word-of-mouth hit “The Worst Person in the World” did sell out of Cannes 2021 before scoring two Oscar nominations (director Joachim Trier is on this year’s Competition jury), the finished movies in the Cannes selection are a sliver of what’s available in the market, where distributors will be checking out packages that are in various stages of production and seeking additional investment and distribution.
Four years ago, Roadside Attractions bought “Judy” off a five-minute promo reel and wound up with a 2019 Best Actress Oscar win for Renée Zellweger.
That’s where the real action is.
Here are 10 of the buzziest projects, from packages to completed or near-completed films, for sale during the festival.
“Maybe I Do”
Worldwide: Endeavor Content and WME Independent
Nearly three decades since he cemented his name as a TV-creator superstar with “Boy Meets World,” Michael Jacobs will make his feature film directorial debut with a remarkably stacked cast. The romantic comedy centers around three couples, the questioning-if-they’re-ready-to-marry Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey and their been-in-the-trenches parents, played by Diane Keaton, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and William H. Macy. The multi-generational group convenes to ponder the complexities of marriage and reflect on the ups and downs of decades-long relationships.
Now in post-production, the film is based on a play Jacobs wrote in the 80s. Such an enviable cast delivers instantly broad appeal for the project: Streamers who have helped resurrect the romantic comedy will be sure to take a close look, as will distributors wondering if this standout example of a once-dead genre could again find a worthy place on their theatrical slates during a period of pandemic-era rebuilding.
“The Dating Game”
After her feature debut “Watcher” earned positive reviews out of this year’s Sundance and distribution from IFC Films and Shudder, Chloe Okuno’s next project is built around a Black List script from Ian McDonald and comes attached with Anna Kendrick. “The Dating Game” is based on the true story of Rodney Alcala, a serial killer convicted of seven homicides and who appeared on the popular TV show “The Dating Game” in 1978 amid his killing spree. Kendrick plays the show’s contestant with whom Alcala wins a date.
Okuno demonstrated her skill at handling suspenseful, serial killer-focused material for her debut film; this next effort could offer her an even greater chance to shine in a commercial project with greater resources and a bankable star in Kendrick.
Based on the James O’Barr’s graphic novel of the same name, “The Crow” became a cult classic after its 1994 release and marked the final film from star Brandon Lee, who was killed in an on-set gun accident. “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders will helm a reboot from a script by Zach Baylin, fresh off his Oscar nomination for “King Richard,” that stars Bill Skarsgård and FKA Twigs, who most recently earned acclaim for her role in 2019’s “Honey Boy.”
It goes without saying that superhero material continues to be the most solid of bets at the box office, and the dark story from O’Barr’s comics could draw an audience that’s equal parts Marvel and indie, perhaps in the vein of “John Wick.” If it’s a success, the reboot could spawn a whole new franchise for a business that’s contending with a dwindling pool of blockbuster IP.
“Wicked Little Letters”
After earning twin Oscar nominations this year for their performances in “The Lost Daughter,” Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are set to team again on “Wicked Little Letters,” a comedy directed by Thea Sharrock (“Me Before You”) and written by actor Jonny Sweet. Colman and Buckley will play two very different neighbors who come together to solve a mystery in the 1920s. Production is set to begin this fall in the U.K.
Sharrock called the project “a divine comedy with a profoundly moving core.” The prestige DNA is elevated further thanks to the involvement of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” producers Graham Broadbent and Peter Czernin; it all points to a film that many corners of the business will be taking a close look at.
The Liam Neeson actioner “Taken” remains a cultural touchstone 14 years after its release and now director Pierre Morel hopes to repeat that success with a female twist. Kate Beckinsale is set to star in “Canary Black” as a CIA agent blackmailed by terrorists into betraying her country in order to save her kidnapped husband. It’s built around a script from Matthew Kennedy, who scripted the 2020 thriller “Inheritance.”
Thrillers with known casts continue to be a solid bet in the marketplace and “Canary Black” has enough promising elements to garner interest from distributors of all breeds, from VOD-focused players to streamers.
Despite its disappointing $17.2 million gross (blame the pandemic!), Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut “Promising Young Woman” immediately established the actor as deft at executing original, cast-driven material that resonates in the culture. Her follow-up to the Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner, “Saltburn,” sets her up for another success with that formula. Attached to star are Jacob Elordi, Barry Keoghan, and Rosamund Pike. Plot details are being kept under wraps, aside from the fact that it’s a story about obsession.
The package is a promising mix of elements that demands the attention of specialty labels like Focus, which distributed “Promising Young Woman” and has redoubled its stated commitment to theatrical on the heels of the strong (by pandemic standards) performance of “The Northman.” But they’re sure to have competition from everyone else eager about the possibility of hitching their wagons to the rising careers of Fennell and Elordi.
“Land of Bad”
Worldwide: Highland Film Group
With upcoming appearances in Taiki Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” and Peter Farrelly’s Netflix movie “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” Russell Crowe is back in the tentpole spotlight. That’s just one factor that makes the action-thriller package “Land of Bad” attractive. Crowe is set to star as an Air Force drone pilot whose mission goes horribly wrong and is forced to remedy what has turned into a rescue operation in the Philippines with the help of an air controller (Liam Hemsworth). As Liam Neeson’s thriller career winds down, one-time Oscar-winner Crowe is poised to take his place.
Spike Lee protege Stefon Bristol earned acclaim for his 2019 feature debut “See You Yesterday,” which was released by Netflix and earned an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Feature. His sophomore effort is set to star Sam Worthington, Jennifer Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Common and is built around a Black List script from Doug Simon (“Demonic”). Hudson and Wallis play a mother and daughter who are forced to live underground when an oxygen-deprived Earth is made uninhabitable. The pair welcome a mysterious couple into their bunker after they come bearing the news that they know about the fate of Hudson’s assumed-dead husband (Common).
The combination of strong cast, script from a demonstrated genre writer, and emerging director make this an easy sell to any streamer interested.
Domestic: UTA and Cornerstone
Elizabeth Banks is putting her weight behind the third feature from Christine Jeffs, which comes 14 years after her last film, the well-received “Sunshine Cleaning.” Banks will star in the film as one of the only female surgeons working at a hospital; her character is forced to navigate disarray as administrative changes, the fallout from a gone-wrong surgery, and trouble with her colleagues come together.
A breakout star for her Oscar-nominated performance in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Maria Bakalova stars in the Italian-British rom-com “The Honeymoon” alongside Pico Alexander, Asim Chaudhry, and Lucas Bravo. The film centers around a honeymooning couple whose trip to Venice turns to disaster when the groom’s needy best friend shows up.
As romantic comedies continue to be popular on streaming, the appeal of “The Honeymoon” is turned up thanks to its international flavor that could deliver strong domestic and international appeal.