CAA's Benjamin Kramer and Roeg Sutherland on Launching the Virtual Cannes Market: "We Are All Thinking Outside the Box"

Marie Nguyen
From left: Roeg Sutherland and Benjamin Kramer. Photo taken June 22 in Los Angeles.

The industry vets discuss teaming up with rival agencies to keep the business going, what they'll miss about Cannes and the resilience of the indie film sector in a time of crisis. Says Sutherland: "It isn’t the death of the film business, it’s a rebirth."

In normal times, the notion of rival Hollywood agents collaborating would be dismissed as ludicrous. Yet that’s what CAA Media Finance co-heads Roeg Sutherland and Benjamin Kramer set out to do when helping to organize the virtual Cannes sales market led by CAA, UTA Independent Film Group, ICM International and Endeavor Content, as well as several indie production and sales operations, including STX Entertainment, AGC Studios and Sierra/Affinity.

Sutherland and Kramer’s group handles the packing and representation of independently financed films, television and digital content. On the movie side, films packaged and/or sold by CAA Media Finance have generated approximately $5 billion at the worldwide box office. They include The LighthousePavarotti and Knives Out.

CAA brought several high-wattage projects to the virtual market, including James Gray’s Armageddon Time (they worked with Gray on Ad Astra), Michael Mann’s Enzo Ferrari biopic with Hugh Jackman and Antoine Fuqua's Emancipation, starring Will Smith. Separately, Kramer and Sutherland’s team has been busy brokering the $70 million deal with Apple TV+ for Greyhound, the Ron Howard-directed Thai Cave project at MGM; and George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing at MGM

The duo spoke earlier this month with The Hollywood Reporter about their hope for the virtual market, and why nothing can ever replace actually greeting colleagues face to face on the Croisette.

What’s the mood in the indie film community right now?

Kramer: The indie film community has always had to be, by the very nature of it, more scrappy and more entrepreneurial. I think it’s a muscle that indie film producers, filmmakers, across the board are used to flexing. It’s never binary for indie folks — "I can do it or I  can’t do it"  — it’s "I’m going to do it and let’s go figure it out."

Sutherland: Selling movies internationally has been challenged for the last couple years, so we were already in a complicated situation that was made much more complicated because people could not go to theaters anymore. But what I have found to be true in any moment of crisis is that the independent film community is resilient. They have always had to think outside of the box to be able to get anything made, right? Nothing has ever been easy. It isn’t the death of the film business, it’s a rebirth of the film business and it demands that we think about things differently. We are all thinking outside the box about how to bring packages together, how to have our clients communicate better with the buyer’s market. I feel like people are working harder and smarter than they ever have.

What was the expectation heading into the virtual market?

Kramer: A healthy film business depends upon independent distributors worldwide. Those independent distributors do well when they have a steady supply of quality product. If they have films that are commercial and work, it allows them to push really hard for projects that maybe are a little bit less of a commercial certainty but are aiming for something higher artistically or trying to put new faces either in front of or behind the camera that normally wouldn’t have that chance. One of the reasons we’re all pulling for this is to keep that part of the business strong and alive. Because if you look at anyone who has directed any of the biggest films that have come out, usually, if not always, their first film was a small, independently made movie that was championed by independent distributors both in the U.S. and abroad. They proved themselves with their film, but they got that recognition and that validation and that exposure.

Sutherland: Having the community at large and each of the territories work hand in hand is already a huge victory. Because when you think about what a virtual market is doing is it’s presenting projects that will go into production next year and be released at the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. That hopefully gives us enough time to be able to figure out exactly what the world is going to look like. I believe distributors are willing to bet on the future. That being said, it’s new. So like anything new, I’m sure some of it will work, some of it won’t work, but what we’re all going to [do is] communicate, communicate, communicate.

How much are you guys collaborating with the other agencies that also will be selling?

Sutherland: It’s great that we can come together in a moment of difficulty. We are all working toward the same goal. We are not trying to compete to see who is going to sell a movie better than the other person.

Kramer: For the reasons that we just talked about in terms of a strong market and a strong universe of films, we are sharing information on projects. If there is a filmmaker represented somewhere else and they need help with cast, we’re making sure that our actors are seeing it.

What was most interesting to you about the Greyhound deal? That film was originally intended to hit theaters in March of June of this year. It debuts on Apple+ July 10, before movie theaters reopen in earnest in mid-July.

Sutherland: What I would say is twofold. One, you have a creative team that really wanted the movie to be out there now. It’s an important movie and it is timely. There is a great opportunity right now in that people really need content. And then I think the bigger point is that Sony loved the movie and is able to approach the market from a position of strength. It’s a good deal for everyone involved.

How will you cope with the hours of the virtual market, considering you are in Los Angeles?

Kramer: The same way we would if we were at Cannes, which is basically not to sleep.

Sutherland: It is going to be similar to actually being Cannes. I think our hours are going to be some place between six or five to six o’clock in the morning to one o’clock at night. And I think the good thing, the difference between doing it this way is that there is no rosé so there’s no distractions.

How many times have you been to Cannes?

Sutherland: 16

Kramer: 13 times.

Any silver lining to not going this year?

Sutherland: I’m on a plane all the time so it has actually been nice to be able to stop traveling for a second and to realize how much you can actually get done from one place. It has been a really great experience. Do we miss Cannes? Of course.

Kramer: Cannes is special.

Sutherland: Nothing will ever replace human contact, let’s just be clear about that. What we’re doing right now is we are providing band-aids where we need them because we have to sustain a business that is being challenged. And you know what? We can do it. It demands twice as much work and less sleep but we do it from one location.

Kramer: I think that’s well said. I think I hadn’t thought about it until now, but this is by far the longest Roeg has gone without getting on a plane. There are people across the business who are friends and you know that you’re going to see them three or four times a year at the very least at these festival. There are  people who are part of the fabric of your life and a Zoom call can’t replicate that.