The Watch List – Spring 2017. With Sundance, Berlinale and the Oscars behind us, which directors and stars are rising to the top of packaging list for 2017? Who’s bankable for financiers and gets distributors interest?

I tease out the trends from Q1 and track the people and projects to follow for the year.

Rising Stars

Just like the stock market, the value of actors goes up and down. Many names have been touted as the next big thing, but only a couple break through and become that elusive Holy Grail – a bankable movie star.

While a fortunate few become newly minted movie stars by headlining a major franchise (See Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), most actors grind their way to the top of casting directors lists through a combination of TV, independent film and supporting roles in studio films. Awards, box office and acclaim all help to climb the slippery slope to the top.

So, who’s making waves in 2017?


Call it the Moonlight effect. With a Best Picture win and Mahershala Ali scooping Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, you’re going to see a lot more from Barry Jenkins’ outstanding cast.

Ashton Sanders will be in Rupert Wyatt’s sci-fi thriller Captive State and opposite Denzel Washington in legal drama Inner City.  Trevante Rhodes has joined Shane Black’s The Predator and is starring in war drama Horse Soldiers with Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon.

Janelle Monáe hasn’t announced any new feature projects, but with her nuanced performances in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, she’s no doubt climbing to the top of casting directors’ lists.

For veteran actors, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and André Holland, Moonlight underscored their talent and will hopefully give them more traction for more leading roles and getting their own projects off the ground.

Mahershala Ali will be in Fox’s manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel. Naomie Harris is Nisha in Andy Serkis’ upcoming live adaptation of Jungle Book and is starring New Line’s video game adaptation Rampage with Dwayne Johnson. André Holland is reuniting with Ava DuVernay in A Wrinkle In Time and will be in Steve McQueen’s Widows. 

Claire Foy (Photo by Jennifer S. Altman for The LA Times)

With a Golden Globe best actress win behind her for Netflix’s The Crown, the future’s looking bright for Claire Foy. Production for Season 2 is already underway, but the cast is set to change over for Season 3 as the series tracks the Royal Family through the decades. Which leaves Foy free to pursue new projects.

On the features front, she’s starring in Breathe opposite Andrew Garfield. Inspired by the true story of Robin Cavendish, who became one of the longest-living polio survivors in Great Britain after contracting the disease at 28. Foy plays his wife Diana, whose grit, determination and support allowed Robin to live a full life outside of hospital in a time where polio was considered a life sentence bed bound.

I’d love to see her break free of the period pieces for something modern.

Daniel Kaluuya

Daniel Kaluuya is having a hell of a month. Get Out has racked up an incredible $78M at the US box office and is on track to become one of Blumhouse’s biggest hits, launching Kaluuya into mass market consciousness and cementing director and writer Jordan Peele as one of Hollywood’s hottest talents.

He’s also been announced as the lead for Steve McQueen’s heist movie Widows and is now shooting Ryan Coogler’s Black Pantherset for a February 2018 release.

Florence Pugh. Photo – Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer.

After a standout performance in William Oldroyd’s iFeatures backed Lady Macbeth, Florence Pugh confirmed she’s a talent to track. The film will be out in the UK in April and the US in June and she’s starring in horror Hush, set for release later in the year.

In the pipeline, she’s playing opposite Liam Neeson in Lionsgate action thriller The Commuter and is joining the cast of Stephen Merchant’s comedy Fighting With My Family with Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headley and Vince Vaughn.

Riz Ahmed. Photograph Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

A Golden Globe nomination for The Night Of, his own action figure from his turn as Bodhi Rook in Star Wars: Rogue One, supporting roles in Jason Bourne and Una and guest spots in Girls and Netflix’s The OA, Riz Ahmed’s career has gone meteoric. Last year, he was also seen in Brit indie City of Tiny Lights and continues to champion the importance of representation in the businessgiving a speech at the House of Commons on diversity.

Whatever he decides to do next, it’s bound to be interesting.


Sam Claflin

With Warner Brothers’ Me Before You taking over $207M worldwide on a $20M budget last year, Sam Claflin is becoming a name thrown in the mix as a leading man.

In 2017, he’s in war movie Journey’s End as Captain Stanhope and Fox’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel opposite Rachel Weisz. A leading role in a prestige TV series or a studio franchise would help solidify his star status, but he’s definitely an actor on the rise.

Directors To Watch

Let’s do the obvious first. Post Oscars, Damon Chazelle will be teaming up with Ryan Gosling again for Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. Dreamworks are co-financing with Universal, who already has high hopes for an awards run, with a October 2018 release scheduled.

Barry Jenkins is smoking hot post Moonlight. He’s shooting an episode for Lionsgate Television’s series of Dear White People for Netflix, has a limited series in the works based on Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad” and is writing a feature script based on the life of Olympic boxing champion Claressa “T-Rex” Shields that he’ll direct.

Academy Award success aside, which other directors are on the rise? Who’s getting traction from a financing and distribution perspective in the indie space?

Hounds Of Love

After an outstanding reception at Venice last year to his low budget debut feature Hounds of Love, Aussie director Ben Young’s follow up feature sci-fi Extinction was launched at Berlin by Good Universe and snapped up by Universal. Positioned as a franchise, Young has his chance to make his mark on a grand scale

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Fresh off the success of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, which pulled in $37M worldwide, director Mandie Fletcher is partnering up with Jennifer Saunders again on Patrick, an odd couple comedy about a young woman whose life is turned upside by the pamper pug she inherits from her grandmother. Think Marley and Me meets Bridget Jones. The Exchange were selling, with Disney already on board for UK rights.

Hulu’s series The Handmaid’s Tale

Reed Morano is on a flyer. The cinematographer turned director made critical waves with her debut Meadowland and is currently directing  The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. She has a number of features lined up including IM Global’s apocalypse drama I Think We’re Alone Now with Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage and drama Lioness with Ellen Page.

47 Metres Down

Johannes Roberts is following up shark thriller 47 Metres Down with The Strangers 2. Bloom saw strong sales in Berlin for the home invasion horror where three familiar masked psychopaths terrorise a family visiting relatives on vacation.  Roberts is also developing Hearts based on Stephen King’s novella Hearts In Atlantis with 47 Metres Down partners The Fyzz Facility.

The Death of Stalin

Personal favourite project from Berlin? Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. It’s Iannucci’s first feature film.

He wrote the script, based on Fabien-Nury’s acclaimed graphic novel, which was a joy to read and the promo footage looked fabulous.

With a stellar cast including Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough and Simon Russell Beale, I can’t wait for its release.

Next up on the feature front for Iannucci is an adaptation of David Copperfield for BBC Films. He’s always been a giant in comedy and it’s great to see him add features to his bow.

Haifaa Mansour’s Mary Shelley

Berlin has a number of projects headed up by foreign directors making their English language debut. There was Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley, due out later this year. French horror maestro Pascal Laughier’s Incident In A Ghost Land looked chilling and at the pre-sale stage, Hanway launched sales on Difret director Zersenay Berhane Mehari Sweetness In The Belly with Saoirse Ronan.

As well as newer faces, there’s a number of projects from established auteurs and big name talent to look forward to for 2018.

Luca Guadadigno is bringing to life a new version of Suspiria starring Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz. FilmNation are selling.

Rocket Science launched sales on Harmony Korine’s stoner comedy The Beach Bum. Matthew McConaughy will be Moondog, a rebellious and lovable rogue who lives life large.  Principal photography is due to begin in July.

Matthew McConaughy can also be found in Steven Knight’s Serenity with Anne Hathaway. The films tells the story of a fishing boat captain whose past is about to crash up against his life on a small island in the Caribbean and ensnare him in a new reality that might not be all it seems.

IMR International introduced Todd Solondz’s Love Child with Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez, putting his own spin on Oedipus with Killer Films producing.

Richard Linklater is teaming up with Robert Downey Jr for a feature about Dr John Brinkley, based on the “Man of the People” episode from the “Reply All” podcast from Gimlet Media.

Inspired by a true story, Brinkley conned his way to fame on the back of fake medicine until the editor of American Medical Association journal, Dr. Morris Fishbein decides to take him down.  Annapurna will produce alongside Team Downey, Detour Filmproduction and Gimlet Media.

Terrence Malick is having a prolific run. The appropriately Austin set Song To Song starring Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman will open SXSW this year. In Berlin, Mister Smith opened sales on Radegund, based on the true Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian solider who became a conscientious objector during World War II.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Header photo credit: Moonlight Poster

A note worth making. Although the people listed are certainly on the rise, none of them equal an automatic green light. Even the auteurs. From a financing and distribution perspective, it’s about fitting together the puzzle pieces of star, director, script, genre, budget, concept, franchise/IP status, supporting cast. What combination makes sense commercially?

For example, a Melissa McCarthy comedy or a Liam Neeson action are hot properties, but take them outside those genres and the equation changes. Chris Hemsworth sells tickets as Thor in the Marvel movies, but his independent projects haven’t quite caught fire at the box office. Malick’s Radegund is perceived as less commercial than Song To Song due to the cast.

Share Button