Cannes: Jessica Chastain Powers Female-Fronted Market Titles

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter
Jessica Chastain at The Hollywood Reporter and DIRECTV event on May 10 in Cannes, France.

Big-budget, women-led projects like the $75 million-plus spy thriller '355' are tempting buyers with an of-the-moment spin on genres normally reserved for men.

When it comes to big-budget, high-level fare, the Cannes market has always been a man's world. But at this year's incarnation, there's a slew of female-fronted genre films that are upending that paradigm.

Led by the James Bond-esque spy pic package 355, which will star Jessica Chastain, Fan Bingbing, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz and Lupita Nyong'o, the market appears to be catching up with the larger cultural phenomenon of women demanding their equal place amid the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.

The five actresses joined 355 director Simon Kinberg for a Thursday presentation at the Majestic Hotel — easily the most glamorous event thus far at this year's otherwise sleepy Cannes. Festival glitz typically takes place on a red carpet and involves a finished film. Such was not the case with the 355 presentation, whose collective star power easily eclipsed any other event of the festival to date.

Adding to the intrigue, the five women were transported by boat to a photo op near the famed Hotel du Cap. After the presentation, Chastain, who is producing the film, headed to a lunch reception at the Majestic, sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter and DirecTV on the Grey Goose Terrace.

The standing-room-only crowd of 300 included top buyers — both domestic and international — to hear the pitch. Sources say the film's budget will exceed $75 million, making it one of the priciest Cannes market titles of all time. Chastain, who served as a Cannes juror last year, was disheartened by the female representations in the films she screened. So, she handpicked and enlisted Fan, Cotillard, Cruz and Nyong'o — "Luckily they all said yes," Chastain told the buyers — as well as her X-Men: Dark Phoenix director Kinberg.

There's no script yet, but according to Vanity Fair's Rebecca Keegan, who accidently was allowed into the no-press, top-secret presentation before she was kicked out while live tweeting, the plot revolves around five spies from agencies around the world who form their own team, dubbed 355. Theresa Rebeck (Catwoman) is writing the screenplay.

FilmNation, which is selling the film internationally, already is seeing brisk business, quickly landing a deal with SND for France. In the U.S., the filmmakers are looking for a theatrical distributor and see 355 as a franchise starter.

"It's an interesting concept and definitely timely," says eOne's Benjamina Mirnik-Voges, who was at the presentation and buys for Germany. "The question is whether it will appeal to both female as well as male audiences, which still make up the main audience for action movies."

Regardless, 355 isn't an outlier this year. The market also boasts such titles as the Mila Kunis-Kate McKinnon buddy action pic The Spy Who Dumped Me, which Lionsgate is selling internationally. The Salma Hayek vehicle The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, a female spin on the Ryan Reynolds-Samuel L. Jackson action film The Hitman's Bodyguard, is being shopped here by Millennium, which also is putting together The Expendabelles, a spinoff on its hit action franchise The Expendables.

"It's great to see female-driven films being championed," says Millennium's Jeffrey Greenstein. "There are so many talented women that deserve the opportunity. It's an exciting time."

The 355 presentation arrived two days ahead of what is expected to be a headline-grabbing moment for women in Cannes. On Saturday night, before the world premiere of director Eva Husson's competition title Girls of the Sun, 82 women will walk the carpet in solidarity, representing the 82 female filmmakers who have had films in the main competition in its 71 years — a paltry representation.

Still, the box-office performance of female-led genre films will dictate whether that trend is here to stay. One key test will take place June 8, when Warner Bros. releases the female ensemble heist film Ocean's 8, starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway. Recent films like the Scarlett Johansson action film Lucy, which earned $463 million worldwide, have defied the conventional wisdom that genre films should be an XY affair. Says Kinberg: "I feel lucky to be able to do something that will shake up not just the spy genre but also Hollywood to show that an ensemble of women are as commercially viable as any ensemble of men."

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 11 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.