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Cannes Film Market Faces Pressure From Digital Giants, Lack of Bankable Stars

”We need to be creating more movie stars for the marketplace,“ one buyer tells TheWrap on eve of Marché du Film

The lack of bankable stars. Competition from television. Monster franchises overwhelming independent films. Tightening VOD windows. Competition from the digital giants. Such are the concerns facing sellers and buyers attending this year’s Marché du Film, Cannes’ market.

One challenge has come in the packaging of material with stars already attached. “Packages have been on my mind because they’ve been falling apart,” said Laura Walker of Alex Garcia‘s indie financing company AG Capital, which recently found itself in a bidding war over David Grann‘s new book Killers of the Flower Moon. “More companies are buying packaged products, but there has been a thinning of the herd of bankable stars. TV and films are competing fort he same talent, and with TV locking them into longer-term contracts, they get taken off the market for a longer amount of time.”

So who are the stars that buyers are still pursuing? “There are a number of actors whose value has increased,” said Foresight Unlimited’s Mark Damon. “They’re as sought after as established stars, yet so few can really open a movie right now. People are excited about the actors from Star Wars and Warcraft, but they’re difficult to get as well.”

Indeed, Star Wars actors Daisy Ridley and Domhnall Gleeson have seen their foreign value rise of late, as have young stars such as Miles Teller, Dakota Johnson and Scott Eastwood, all of whom are expected to have some impact on this year’s marketplace. One sales agent even called Brie Larson “probably ungettable” following her Oscar win for Room.

The problem, as sales veterans describe it, is that the minute these young stars have enough recognition to be valuable, they’re harder to get for indie movies. “The U.S. marketplace has so many choices,” said Ashok Amritraj of Hyde Park International. “For the first time, I’m DVR’ing four shows at home. TV has gotten a lot better, the choices at home are better. It’s more about, ‘Which movie would I really pay to go and see?’ And those movies, in the indie world, are getting more rare.”

But to stand out in a crowded market, indie films need names so that they look like theatrical pictures, not direct-to-video projects. “They don’t need to be major stars,” said Damon, “just right for the roles.”

Buyers, said Nadine de Barros of Fortitude International, are “not as easily convinced or manipulated by the stunt castings that once happened back in the day. Sometimes I find buyers will take a less glamorous name if they’re more right for the part. They’ve become more sophisticated. The script is king at the end of the day. You can’t underestimate it anymore, because buyers are paying attention and forcing us to focus on better movies.”

De Barros pointed to last year’s The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as real-life writers, as an example of “a very prestige picture with limited appeal to a wide audience” that nonetheless made buyers “happy with the results.”

Amritraj, who thinks that independent films are losing theatrical slots to big franchises, said that sellers must consider far more than just casting. “If you want to make some serious pre-sales, you have to tick every box,” he said. “The material and stars have to appeal, and it has to be at the right budget.”

Lisa Wilson, who leads the Solution Entertainment Group along with Myles Nestel, cited the success of The Sound of Metal starring Matthias Schoenaerts with Dakota Johnson, who followed her blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey with the hit rom-com How to Be Single. “Buyers need to take a nuanced approach and continue making bets on them,” Wilson said,”because we need to keep the tradition of pack-aging, going to market and selling alive.”

The current climate may also create opportunities to nurture new talent–including actors from under-represented groups. “We need to be creating more movie stars for the marketplace,” Walker said, “and it’d be great to dovetail the diversity conversation with that.”

Digital companies like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Hulu have made strong inroads in the United States, but foreign sales agents agree that the traditional U.S. theatrical window remains important, especially given the fall in the video market and ancillary revenues. If a movie debuts on VOD or goes day-and-date in North America, it’s hard for foreign buyers to get local exhibitors to play the film, creating a disconnect in the market.

“Domestic is really important on multiple levels,” said de Barros. “There’s a huge difference in value for films going straight-to-VOD versus theatrical. Movies released via collapsed windows, like the Amazon or Netflix model, even that is problematic for buyers. They have problems getting it into theaters. Theatrical is more important than it has ever been.”

Walker, who as a financier doesn’t rely on a theatrical guarantee to finance projects, took a different view. “Disrupters like Netflix and Amazon are beholden to Wall Street and stockholders, whereas studios are beholden to parent companies,” she said. “Netflix and Amazon have more latitude because of their structure, especially when it comes to recouping on their investments. I think there’s a seismic shift happening and they’ll continue to disrupt.”

The market, meanwhile, “keeps shifting,” according to Amritraj. “At Sundance, Netflix and Amazon outbid many of the players,” he said. “You see digital getting more important in the U.S., but internationally, it’s not quite there. When you look at independent films, a lot don’t get the wide theatrical release that the foreign guys are expecting. They’re counting on a traditional theatrical, because video is fast disappearing. To them, a traditional theatrical movie is still a 2,500-screen release. To the U.S.guys, it’s how the digital players make their play. There’s this whole thing about what is an independent theatrical movie these days.”

And in the end, most buyers and sellers headed to the Marché du Film aren’t sure what they’ll find in these turbulent times. “I think our business is about to change over the next few years,” said Damon, “and I’m not sure what one does to overcome it.”

Wilson concurred, comparing the battle for Cannes titles to the real estate market and summing up the entire process in a simple phrase:

“It’s bizarre.”