Cannes Market Preview: Buyers Want Great Films in an Industry in Flux

“Return to normal” has been the hopeful theme of the Cannes Film Festival market for the last few years as the industry attempted to recover from the pandemic. But the theme of 2024 should probably be “return to new normal” as the industry experiences an ongoing period of contraction following the burst of activity brought on by the streaming boom.

Major films are still up for acquisition, from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis” (which closed sales to foreign territories this weekend), to director Ali Abbasi’s “The Apprentice,” which stars Sebastian Stan as a young Donald Trump and Jeremy Strong as Roy Cohn.

The undercurrent among film buyers and sellers who spoke to TheWrap seems to be one of, if not caution, more thoughtful consideration when it comes to acquisitions.

“Things are gradually improving,” Bleecker Street president Kent Sanderson told TheWrap of the health of the Cannes acquisitions market.

Julien Levesque, an agent in Gersh’s film finance group, agreed. “It’s a return to a buyer’s market, but I do see it being healthy, titles getting picked up,” he said. “The Cannes Film Festival will be able to do its job.”

That’s because the backdrop of this year’s Cannes is an industry in flux. The 2023 strikes have resulted in a lack of product for many distributors in 2024, and yet insiders said that Hollywood’s overall reduction in spending is leading to a cost-conscious approach from many buyers. Even the epic from one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time is having trouble finding a U.S. distributor.

Jeff Deutchman, president of acquisitions and production at Neon — the four-time consecutive Palme d’Or winner for “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Triangle of Sadness,” “Titane” and “Parasite” — said the market is “feast or famine” this year.

“There’s always at least one streamer who is willing to pay stupid money for one or two films, and everything else has become a buyer’s market for the first time since 2011,” Deutchman told TheWrap. “The problem is that theatrical distributors (and exhibitors) need access to those top one or two films in order to make them healthy enough to take risks on smaller films. So until the financiers and filmmakers who win that lottery are willing to bet on their own films for theatrical release, the ecosystem will suffer.”

Producer and industry veteran Glenn Kendrick Ackermann, who has the drama “Can You Hear Me?” at Cannes, added: “My understanding from key buyers of multi-territories is that while buyers are hungry as a result of the strike and things are taking time to cast, they are hungry for the right product.”

“Our industry went through a period of time where people were just putting content out there and it wasn’t at the level that a lot of distributors were looking for,” said Brian Beckmann, CFO and COO of Arclight Films. “What has happened is that you’re seeing them being…picky is a good term. I would like to say that they’re being selective for good quality films.”

Beckmann said he’s seen an uptick in activity in the marketplace since the last Cannes. Despite last year’s “dismal” Toronto International Film Festival, a strong Berlin market has him optimistic as Arclight looks to sell films like Paul Schrader’s “Oh Canada” on the Croisette.

The Cannes marketplace, the Marché du Film, takes place a few floors below the theaters that will be playing the prestigious festival’s official selection. It will be hosting 1,500 screenings this year (as opposed to fewer than 100 in the festival lineup), showcasing 4,000 films and projects as buyers and sellers mingle.

A WME agent told TheWrap there’s plenty of engagement around this year’s Cannes lineup, “especially given the profile of many of the filmmakers with films for sale.” That includes Schrader’s movie, starring Richard Gere; David Cronenberg’s “The Shrouds” with Diane Kruger; Paolo Sorrentino’s “Parthenope” featuring Gary Oldman; Andrea Arnold’s “Bird” starring “Saltburn” breakout Barry Keoghan; and one of the festival’s buzziest titles: “The Apprentice” from Abbasi, the director of Un Certain Regard-winning “Holy Spider.”

“I don’t think anyone is complaining about the lineup of English-language titles in competition,” Sanderson said of the slate, which will surely get a social media visibility boost thanks to red carpets for starry films like Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness” with Emma Stone, which is being distributed by Searchlight, and out-of-competition premieres like “Furiosa,” George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” prequel, and the first of four films in Kevin Costner’s Western epic “Horizon: An American Saga,” both from Warner Bros.

Even Coppola has come up short

And then there is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis.

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in “Megalopolis” (Courtesy of: American Zoetrope / Megalopolis / Mihai Malaimare)

Coppola first conceived of the story for the independent passion project in 1979, then self-funded its $120 million budget thanks to his wine business. Adam Driver and Giancarlo Esposito anchor the tale of two competing visions for how to rebuild New York City after the metropolis is destroyed. Those who attended a private screening in March in Los Angeles reported that “Megalopolis” is experimental and complex, keeping with Coppola’s streak of pushing the limits of the cinematic form with his most recent features (see: 2011’s “Twixt” and 2009’s “Tetro”).

Coppola’s L.A. screening failed to secure distribution from the major Hollywood studios, so now the film heads to Cannes as the latest from an Oscar-winning filmmaker responsible for multiple masterpieces. The director, after all, is the guy who made two Oscar Best Picture winners (the first two “Godfather” films) and two Palme d’Or winners (“The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”) in the span of seven years. “Megalopolis” seeks a hefty P&A commitment that sources put in the range of the film’s $100 million budget. The film has secured distribution in some international territories, including the U.K., but has yet to find a U.S. distributor.

Deutchman said he wasn’t able to make the Los Angeles screening, but is eager to get a look at the film. “Whatever happens with it, no matter what anyone says, I’ll be seeing it the first chance I get. I’m a stubborn completist when it comes to Coppola,” the Neon exec said.

But Levesque isn’t optimistic Coppola will be able to get the exact deal he wants in Cannes. “Sadly, I think he’s gonna have to lower his expectations because his ask is way too high and doesn’t make sense for any distributors right now,” he said. If this were a sale five years ago, he added, its prospects would’ve been brighter.

That’s a sign of the changed times, as evidenced by the fact that Paramount dropped Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” during development when the story changed from a true crime whodunit to a more contemplative drama. Apple picked up the $200 million project and it scored 10 Oscar nominations while grossing $157 million at the worldwide box office.

While Cannes has always been good for an Oscar contender or two, recent years have seen the festival become a haven for future winners like “Parasite,” “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest,” due in no small part to the increasingly international makeup of the Academy’s voting body. Levesque said domestic distributors are heading to Cannes “with an eye for what could play well and what you could build an Oscar campaign around.”

“Cannes films certainly, and more recently over the last few years, have a runway to the Oscars,” Beckmann said, noting Arclight has high hopes for Schrader’s “Oh Canada” after the filmmaker’s 2017 film “First Reformed” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

As the studio behind the last four Palme d’Or winners, Neon’s Deutchman said he’s seen a significant shift in how U.S. audiences in particular respond to the films that take home Cannes’ top award.

“It used to be that the Palme d’Or didn’t necessarily mean anything in the United States, and that was in part because some of the films chosen were inherently limited in their appeal outside of the most die-hard cinephiles in the U.S.,” he explained. “It might just be a coincidence, but over the last several years, the films chosen have been ones that have real crossover potential around the world, including in the U.S., especially to younger cinephiles. And this has had a cumulative impact on the meaning of Cannes and the Palme to those audiences.”

Any distributor buying in Cannes wants to make money on its investment, of course, and Sanderson thinks the market is moving back towards a theatrical release model after pushing streaming and VOD.

“There is increasingly widespread consensus that the theatrical window is key to setting up a film’s long-term life cycle,” the Bleecker Street president said. “Even companies that previously were buying just for VOD and to flip to SVOD services are releasing films in hundreds or even north of a thousand screens.”

A theatrical window that boosts a film’s visibility, leading to increased awareness once it hits VOD and streaming? Call it a new normal.

A version of this story first appeared in the Cannes issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

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