Cannes: Market to Open With Few Stars, Less Buzz

 AP Photo/Thibault Camus

The disappearance of Exclusive Media and the now-shuttered Focus Features International from their prominent spots on the Croisette after years of domination is a stark reminder of the changes sweeping through the independent film business.

For those that are left, it’s largely back to basics. Many top-tier foreign sales agents are bringing smaller slates to this year’s market, while the usual flurry of press releases announcing new, headline-grabbing projects never materialized. “It’s a bit of a trough,” says independent producer David Linde, who is backing one of the few projects at Cannes featuring a top star, the Amy Adams sci-fi thriller Story of Your Life. "The market is adjusting itself.”

There are several culprits. With the renaissance of television, top movie stars have even more choices, making it difficult for producers and sales agents to package movies. And some expensive projects have lost their stars after being sold internationally, a nightmare scenario for sales agents, since foreign and U.S. distributors buying into the project can then pull out.

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Arguably the biggest presale title at Cannes in 2013 was the sci-fi romance Passengers starring Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon dropped out and was replaced by Rachel McAdams in October of that year. But when McAdams left in March 2014, The Weinstein Co., which had acquired U.S. rights, dropped the film (it has since been picked up by Focus domestically).

Another issue is a string of big-budget misses in the independent space — including Cloud Atlas, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Pompeii, Walking With Dinosaurs, Ender’s Game and Rush — leaving sales agents and foreign buyers nervous.

Rush, Ron Howard’s Formula One drama, played a prominent role in the demise of Exclusive as an active production, financing and sales company. Exclusive produced and backed Rush, which fared poorly in the U.S. and other countries and cost the company tens of millions of dollars.

On Tuesday, Exclusive international president Alex Walton announced he was leaving to form his own sales company, Bloom, with Garmin heir and emerging film financier/producer Ken Kao.

Cloud Atlas didn’t help the standing of Focus International, part of Focus Features, but it ultimately was shut down after parent Universal decided late last year to take Focus in a new direction. James Schamus was ousted as chief and replaced by Peter Schlessel, while Focus International’s London headquarters was closed.

Focus International co-president Alison Thompson already has announced her next venture, albeit on a much smaller scale than Walton's. She’s formed sales outfit Sunray Films, which also debuts in Cannes.

Al Munteanu, CEO of German distributor SquareOne, says the film business always has been cyclical: “Every Exclusive Media that goes, another company will come around to take its place. The companies change, but the same people keep circling around.”

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