Cannes 2016 was a subdued one, with quieter crowds and few big ticket buys at the market. Bag checks at the Palais and armed guards on the Croisette cast an uneasy feel over the festival. But the sun defied forecasts and the Competition line up was the best in years, much to the delight of critics.
Which were the hot titles for distribution? What were the trends in the projects on the market? Who are being pitched and packaged as the next rising stars? Why are Amazon being welcomed by buyers and sellers where Netflix have been shunned? My take from the inside.
Chatting to my distributor clients, it was a slow market again, with few premium packages on sale. Distributors are still cagey on acquisitions. They’re looking for theatrical level titles that can perform at the box office, as downstream revenues continue to be hit hard.
With a few holdouts, like Germany, most territories write off physical as a source of revenue. DVDs are projected as zero in acquisitions. Television channels are increasingly more selective with the films they pick up, with license fees falling with advertising revenue.
One distributor reported their major TV partner is cutting their film programming by half.
Film isn’t bringing in the viewing numbers it did in years past. Audiences prefer to watch movies on their own timeframe on Netflix, Amazon or iTunes when they pay for content at all.
In Benelux, there’s been a growth in local language productions at the box office, which becomes part of the equation for acquisitions. Why pre-buy a big ticket package, which may or may not come out well, when you can make a local language production, recoup and license the film and even remake rights to other territories?
Don’t get me wrong, there are still hits, but distribution’s based on the success and failure of a slate of projects. You’re constantly rolling the dice on acquisitions.
Some films work, some fail spectacularly, and some break even, which on balance is essentially a loss when you’re just washing money, not even accounting for the time and effort in rolling out the film release. Hence the conservatism of buyers.
But distributors still buy their plane tickets and come to markets. Cinema screens need filling and there’s still money be made. So, what were the hot titles that got distributors talking and spending at Cannes?
High concept horror movie Winchester from Diamond Pictures saw a bloody bidding war in several territories, which only got more cut throat when they confirmed Helen Mirren as their leading lady.
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images
Directed by the Spiereg Brothers, Winchester is inspired by the true story of Sarah Winchester, the widow and heiress to the Winchester Arms fortune. After her husband and child died suddenly, Sarah Winchester spent decades building the Winchester Mystery House, full of dead ends, stairways to nowhere and empty rooms, to outrun the ghosts haunting her, killed by the guns her husband made.
It’s a brilliant take on the haunted house and hugely commercial. Think an American Woman In Black, with huge potential to breakout worldwide.
Photo: The Hollywood Reporter
Buyers flocked for Covert Media’s Ophelia, which was one of my favourite projects on the market. Adapted from Lisa Klein’s award winning novel, Ophelia is a reimagining of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes. It has the feel of Ever After meets Romeo and Juliet. Daisy Ridley will play Ophelia, with Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude, and Claire McCarthy directing.
This is female audience focused all the way. Teen girls, mums and daughters and crossover as a date night pick. With a Shakespeare hook, stellar cast and a role that should solidify Daisy Ridley as a bona-fide movie star, this is one to watch. They’ve got my ticket money on opening weekend.
Sierra Affinity cruised into Cannes with a strong slate. Highlights included Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game. The script landed late, coming in at over 200 pages, but as you’d expect from Sorkin, it read like silk. Here’s a synopsis from Deadline:
“ [Molly] Bloom, a beautiful, young Olympic-class skier, ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally becomes her criminal defense lawyer, who learns that there’s much more to Molly than the tabloids lead us to believe.”
Photo: The Hollywood Reporter
Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are attached. STX scooped up US and China rights for a cool $9 million. eOne is co-financing and has Canada, UK, Australia/New Zealand, Benelux and Spain and other territories were snapped up fast.
Sierra also saw brisk business on sci-fi thriller Anon with Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried, and drama Tully, reuniting Juno director and scribe Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, with Charlize Theron starring.
Toni Erdmann and director driven hits
Still from Toni Erdamnn. Photo via Indiewire
On the more director driven/auteur side, Maren Ade’s In Competition critically loved comedy Toni Erdmann was picked up by Sony Pictures Classic for North America and Latin America, with further deals in UK, Italy, Scandinavia, Japan, Spain, Hong Kong, CIS, Poland, Benelux, China, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Taiwan, Czech Republic/ Slovakia, Australia, South Korea and Turkey.
It may have lost out on the prizes at Cannes, but buzz has already begun for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar nomination if Germany choose to submit it.
Speaking of Foreign Picture Oscar noms, Mustang director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s new project Kings repped by Vincent Maraval’s Insiders was snapped up by buyers.
The drama stars Halle Berry as a mother caught up in the violence of the LA riots. StudioCanal picked it up for the UK, France (Ad Vitam), Italy (BIM), Spain (Vertigo), Turkey (Fabula) and ex-Yugoslavia (Blitz).
FilmNation were selling Todd Haynes’ bold, ambitious, and beautiful Wonderstruck with Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, with Amazon Studios producing.
Market Trends: Westerns, ageing action stars, and zombies
Here’s this market’s quirks and trends from the Cannes 2016 line ups.
Last year was the year of the boxing movie, with Southpaw, Creed, Hands of Stone, The Bleeder and Journeyman. This year The Revenant’s opened the floodgates on Westerns.
IM Global were selling Cormac McCarthy adaptation Blood Meridian. James Franco was tapped to star and direct, with a cast that included Russell Crowe, Ethan Hawke, Ryan Reynolds and Vincent D’Onofrio. But the week before the market, the project was put in limbo due to rights issues with the book.
The other heavyweight Western was Hostiles which has awards written all over it. Bloom are selling, Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) directs and Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi star.
The challenge for both is buyers don’t like Westerns.
Say Western to a room full of foreign distributors and watch their faces wrinkle like a prune.
Pitches stating it’s more of action/thriller/character driven story are met with raised eyebrows. Westerns are fundamentally American stories and distribution is littered with good films with great actors that just didn’t travel in other markets.
Sure, The Revenant worked, but that’s an Iñárritu movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, the last of the true movie stars. Time will tell if Blood Meridian and Hostiles hit the target with audiences.
For the record, many territories aren’t taken with boxing movies either, but titles with cast inevitably get sold on the commercial weight of the actors or packaged up with other titles for sale.
Zombies Zombies Zombies
We seem to be in the middle of a zombie moment. Or rather since World War Z, the zombie apocalypse that won’t die, due in part to the popularity of The Walking Dead. You can see the impact of the TV show on the film market. Many of the projects on sales proving to be character driven rather than creature centric.
On the classics front, Nu Image launched presales on a remake of Day of the Dead. Hector Hernandez Vicens will direct.
Bankside were selling Martin Freeman starrer Cargo from Babadook producer Kristian Ceyton. Based on YouTube smash short from directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, it’s the story of an infected father trying to get his baby to safety before he turns.
Bac Films presented Third Wave starring and produced by Ellen Page. It also takes more of a drama take on the genre. The script looks at humanity in the aftermath of a zombie epidemic and cure, where survivors haunted by their actions when they were infected. You can see the proof of concept short The First Wave from first time director David Freyne.
Altitude’s adaptation of M.R. Carey’s bestseller The Girl With All The Gifts with Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and newcomer Sennia Nanua screened at Cannes and will get a UK release with Warner Brothers later this year.
Speaking of best selling book adaptations featuring zombies, Maisie Williams is starring in YA hit The Forest Of Hands and Teeth. Embankment are selling, Kate Maberly directs and Doug Liman produces.
The trick for all of these projects is to come up with something new. With The Walking Dead defining the zombie genre with high end production value and meaty character arcs, what’s the fresh and new angle they can bring to the table?
Will traditional zombie strong territories like Asia still buy into this character driven take, when audience turn out was driven more by creature features and jumps and scares, rather than dialogue and drama? It may work for TV but does it translate for a feature?
Ageing Action Stars
Looking at the presales projects this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking they came via a Delorean, with several scripts headlined by an ageing action hero from the 1980s. Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes and Arnie all made an appearance in line ups, as did the ubiquitous Nicholas Cage.
The thinking? After career revivals, action films with an old school hero still play on pay TV for a number of territories, harking back to the days when they could pack out movie theatres. They’ll have a decent life on a US release. The names, built when they mattered, still have resonance and audience appeal today.
There’s yet to be a young Turk take over the mantle of a pure action hero. Movie stars and actors may drop into action roles (see Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Emily Blunt) or superhero parts, but not since Jason Statham have we seen a break out bankable pure action star.
It’s a tough nut to crack. We need to buy an actor as a hard case who could seriously kick ass, balanced with charisma, comedy and cool. Many have tried (Kellan Lutz, Dominic Purcell, Scott Adkins, we barely knew you) but without the box office to match.
Frank Grillo (aged 50), best known for his performance in the Captain America movies, seems to be the next to take aim as an action lead. At Cannes, Netflix picked up worldwide rights to action thriller Wheelman and he’ll also be seen in Awesomeness Films crime thriller Wolf In The Wild. Will he break out from the pack?
Every market has its share of names touted as the next big thing, a rising star or a career revival, especially given the shortage of packages with A-List talent. Some I’ve mentioned above like Frank Grillo and Maisie Williams. Who were the others rated ones to watch?
After strong performances in It Follows and The Guest, Maika Monroe has become a go to name for casting directors. She’s supporting Jennifer Garner in upcoming drama The Tribes of Palos Verdes, Liam Neeson and Diane Keaton in Deep Throat biopic Felt, and kicking alien ass in Independence Day: Resurgence, and a host of other indie projects.
At Cannes, she was attached to Bloom’s sci-fi thriller Tau, which has shades of Ex Machina meets Cube and had buyers buzzing. Watch out for her on cinema screens across 2017.
Patrick Schwarzenegger (yes, he could only be son of Arnold) seems tipped to be the next teen heartthrob. He’s starring opposite Bella Thorne in The Fault in Our Stars-esque drama romance Midnight Sun about a teenage girl with a life threatening sensitivity to sunlight who has a summer romance with guitar playing Charlie. Based on the 2006 Japanese film of the same name, it’s set to be teen girl catnip.
Next up is Undying, which Lotus launched for presales at Cannes. It’s another drama romance targeted towards teens, with shades of Ghost. Schwarzenegger reunites with Dear Eleanor co-stars Liana Liberato, with Marco Kreuzpainter in the director’s chair.
With Zac Efron aged up along with his High School Musical fans, Schwarzenegger Jr might just fit the frame as the poster boy for the Instagram age.
After a career best performance in Andrea Arnold’s Jury Prize winning American Honey, does redemption beckon for Shia LaBeouf?
He’ll be playing American tennis legend and enfant terrible John McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe which saw strong sales for Svensk at Cannes.
American Honey should see him rise up some casting lists, but with his performance art and current hitch hiking across America, my guess is his work will have more of an indie sensibility than studio blockbusters. Who knows? He might end up the male Kristen Stewart.
Women Directors Get Their Shot
This might be damning with faint praise, but representation for female directors at Cannes for presales was far better than I was expecting.
As well as the films mentioned above; Ophelia – Claire McCarthy, who also had drama The Personal History of Rachel Dupree out for presale with GM Films, The Forest of Hands and Teeth – first time feature director Kate Maberly, Kings –Deniz Gamze Erguven, Cargo – co-directed by Yolanda Ramke, there were several other projects with female directors.
Amazon Studios bought Lynne Ramsay’s drama You Were Never Really Here cementing their status as independent film champions. Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novel, Joaquin Phoenix will star as a war veteran who devotes himself to saving women exploited by sex traffickers.
The Solution were selling ghost ridden YA Anna Dressed In Blood from director Trish Sie, with Stephanie Meyers is producing. Anthony Hopkins, Maisie Williams, Jason Biggs and Anna Faris are signed up for Black List comedy Coup D’Etat with Lisa Addario directing.
TV writing veteran Marti Noxton steps up to the director’s chair with anorexia drama To The Bone. Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves star and AMBI are selling with plenty of interest from buyers.
Hallie Meyers-Shyer is following in the family business, making her directorial debut with comedy Home Again. Rose Byrne stars, and mother Nancy Meyers is producing, with Mad River selling foreign.
Bleiberg had Nicole Jones-Dion’s sci-fi thriller Stasis. CEO and producer Ehud Bleiberg won me over for life when he told me he’s worked with seven female directors in his career, many of them first timers. “Man, woman, doesn’t matter. It’s about the best person for the job.”
Dee Rees’ sweeping drama Mudbound, launched in Berlin, got a boost with its cast. Carey Mulligan, Mary J Blige, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund will round out the ensemble, with Good Universe selling.
It’s worth pointing out these projects skew heavily towards drama, comedy and YA. It’s rare to see a woman given the reins for a big budget action. The progress’s worth noting, even if we’re a long way off parity.
Amazon Studios Makes A Splash
Amazon Studios were the talk of the market, with a slate of acquisitions that served as a statement of intent. They came to Cannes with five titles in the Official Selection; Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, Jim Jarmusch’s Patterson, Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden.
In case you had any questions about their director driven pedigree, they also pre-bought Mike Leigh’s Peterloo before the market and the above mentioned Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really There.
Amazon Studios is a company that loves film and filmmakers.
The difference between Amazon Studios and Netflix, aside from their acquisitions taste? Amazon Studios is embracing the 90 day theatrical window and willing to partner with distributors to give them the support they need to make movies a theatrical success.
For Netflix, theatrical isn’t a priority, preferring day and date releases with theatrical worldwide, which can often be a struggle for foreign distributors. Their focus tends to be mass market. Their second Adam Sandler feature The Do-Over was released on the platform this week.
As well as acquiring, Amazon Studios are aggressively producing their own content, with uber producer Ted Hope heading up their original movies division.
Their first film was Spike Lee’s Chi-raq and FilmNation were selling two more of their projects at Cannes: Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, and taut war thriller The Wall, with Doug Liman directing.
Jason Roppell, who’s Head of Worldwide Film at Amazon Studios, gave a sign of how international sales may shake out, talking at the Amazon Studio Cannes Panel in the UK Pavilion.
“In the UK, we’re having discussions about selling all rights in the territory but reserving the rights for our platform. In lieu of that reservation we’ll provide the all rights buyer or their customer with a rate card indexed to local box office.
That will drive a desire on their part to invest in PA to drive up the theatrical revenue which would then be reflected in the rate card. That would then reflect the value we put on that film when it hits our window.” Via Screen Daily coverage
Like Netflix, that means they’re setting their own price for VOD, which will have ripples throughout distribution. It’s not like distributors will have other options for VOD, but the incentive for fare pricing will be driven by Amazon’s desire for theatrical releases across all of their slate. Burn distributors and they won’t have much incentive to play ball for the next one.
Although Amazon were grabbing the headlines, Netflix were active at the market. As well as picking up worldwide rights for Wheelman mentioned above, they were in talks for Nicholas Hoult war thriller Sandcastle from Voltage.
Beyond the publicised deals, I could see their fingerprints talking to sales agents who reported “global SVOD offers” on for features and docs.
Both of the digital heavyweights are here to stay and shake up the film industry. With Hulu ramping up their acquisitions, there’s more digital disruption ahead.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.
This is an excellent read and important reality check for filmmakers. Favourite section:
“The economics of the business does not sustain the ordinary, much less those who are unwilling or unable to adapt. Case in point: when asked why they do not put A-Listers into projects being sold by anyone other than a top five sales agent, a couple of top packaging agents responded curtly: “We don’t like to put our clients into unfinanced mediocre projects.”