Why Cannes Film Festival Deal-Making Will Be Different This Year

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Since a lot of films sold pre-festival, what can buyers and sellers expect this year?

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(Photo by Olivier Anrigo/Getty Images)

As U.S. and international film fans are heading back to Boulevard de La Croisette for the in-person 2021 Cannes Film Festival, the festival itself looks to be substantially different this year to film buyers and sellers.

According to multiple sales agents, most of the sales for films happened in the weeks leading up to the festival at the Marche Du Film, the festival’s marketplace that took place “pre-screening” this year in a virtual format due to all the COVID-related delays. As a result, the in-person festival starting this week will be more of a networking event for people to sell scripts, packages and films in postproduction and for talent who might want to find industry players to collaborate with on future projects. 

“The English language films playing in the festival are rarely for sale, so during the festival, we used the opportunity to set up new projects, like selling films that were in post off of a promo, or a script that was packaged with key talent that you could find distributors for,” Endeavor Content’s Deborah McIntosh told TheWrap. “I’m sure people will be doing business like this, but there just won’t be as much.”

While the Cannes film market will still be held in person during the festival, the virtual event last month means that many of the starriest films and packages have already pre-sold. IFC snatched up three Cannes competition titles ahead of their premieres: Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” and Mia-Hansen-Love’s English-lange debut “Bergman Island.” The festival’s opening film, “Annette,” starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, will be distributed by Amazon in the United States while UGC is distributing theatrically in France. MGM acquired Sean Penn’s “Flag Day” and Zoe Kravitz’s directorial debut “Pussy Island” last month, while Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” went to Miramax for worldwide rights a week ago.

Still, there are some projects that are still awaiting deals. Packages and scripts for sale include “Love Child” starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz (CAA, WME, Cinetic), Garth Davis’ “Foe” (UTA, CAA), Todd Haynes’ “May December” starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore (UTA, CAA), “Everest” from Doug Liman starring Ewan McGregor (UTA), among others.

And while most of the films screening at the festival have distribution already (as in years past), Charlotte Lichtman, an agent of International and Independent Film at ICM, said this could be a great opportunity for select international films that are still without a distributor to shine — without having to compete with packages and projects that aren’t in the festival. “It’s interesting because this is the first time we’ll have the in-person festival separate from the market,” she said. “It’s new for everyone, but it feels like the festival titles will benefit from having some breathing room from the activity of the market.” 

Both agents foresee some big deals for packages or films in postproduction, and for both streamers and theatrical distributors. This is because demand for content has not diminished, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. With theaters reopening after a year (or more) of closure, theatrical buyers and international territories are hungry for content. However, there is only so much cash these buyers can put up, whereas streamers have put up good capital at recent festivals — including Apple’s record-breaking $25 million deal for “CODA” at January’s Sundance Film Festival, or Christian Bale’s “The Pale Blue Eye” selling to Netflix for a reported $55 million at EFM in March.

Both Lichtman and McIntosh call the marketplace a “healthy one,” using the pre-market sales as an indicator for people ready to buy, and for sellers to find appropriate homes for their titles — regardless of whether it’s with a traditional partner or with a streamer.

“There was a moment in the pandemic where it made sense to go with a streamer because they could release a film quickly,” McIntosh said, adding that it was difficult for sellers and talent alike to reckon with the likely scenario that theatrical distributors would only be able to release films in 2022 due to their crowded slates. “However, look at ‘The Farewell,’ for instance — the filmmakers made the choice to sell to A24 because they wanted to bet on the film’s theatrical ability. There is always a debate about the right release strategy for a film, it’s not once size fits all, and I believe streamers are not putting theatrical buyers out of business anytime soon.”

In addition, indies A24, Neon, Lionsgate and Sony Classics have shown a willingness to make pre-emptive bets on film projects — before a streamer could even have the opportunity to show interest.  “In the ever-changing marketplace where streamers can offer huge numbers on titles, a lot of independent distributors have adapted by getting involved in projects from an earlier stage and not just playing in the finished film acquisitions space,” Lichtman said. “This has worked well for many companies to remain competitive in the current climate.”

In addition, many agents noted that Cannes films (and their filmmakers) often lend themselves more to a traditional theatrical release than a streaming debut. “It depends on the nature of the film of course, as well as what the filmmaking team is looking for in a release strategy,” Lichtman said. “I think we’ll see some healthy competition between the independent distributors on available titles. Of course, the streamers can be aggressive when they want to be, but there are many beautiful films that will be better suited for the independent players.”

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