Cannes: Power Agents Go Shopping for Directors

AP Photo/Thibault Camus

U.S. talent agents looking for the next big thing are setting their sights on emerging directors.

Forget the divas strutting the red carpet: For the packs of U.S. talent agents scouting Cannes for the next big thing, the real stars are the directors.

Teams from all of Hollywood’s major agencies are spending the festival catching competition titles and out-of-the-way market screenings, checking out student-made shorts and pestering sales agents for sizzle reels of features that will screen in Toronto or Telluride.

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With the business more competitive than ever, agents can no longer count on competition title directors to be looking for representation. Now the battle is to find talent before they start generating buzz. The recent slowdown in the Cannes market, partly caused by a bottleneck in top talent, has increased agencies’ focus on the future. All are looking for the next foreign helmer they can build into an international player. Like Canadian Denis Villeneuve, snapped up by CAA after his Incendies screened in Cannes in 2010, who went on to direct Warner Bros’ Prisoners (worldwide gross $122 million). Or Norwegian Morten Tyldum, signed by WME at Cannes in 2012 on the back of market title Headhunters, who is in post on the red-hot Alan Turing-biopic The Imitation Game, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

What an agent is looking for, according to UTA partner Rich Klubeck, is “a clarity of vision and a precision of execution” in their films -- something Klubeck spotted in Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino when his Consequences of Love screened in Cannes competition back in 2004. But the process of signing the director was less than straightforward. Sorrentino initially snubbed Klubeck and warmed to him only gradually after the agent kept calling from year to year and film to film.

“I had all but given up,” admits Klubeck. “But then, he came to Cannes with [eventual Grand Jury Prize winner] Il Divo and out of the blue he agreed to a real meeting. He had reached the point where he was interested in making an English-language film, but I think he was also just amused by my persistence.”

Sorrentino’s last film, The Great Beauty, won the foreign-language Oscar. He now is shooting The Early Years, starring Rachel Weisz.

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These days, an agent who waits for a foreign director to build up a reputation often sees the helmer snapped up by a rival. “It’s gotten very competitive and very, very fast,” says WME agent Jerome Duboz. “You have to talk to sales agents, watch short films, hear what the international producers are saying” to stay a step ahead.

Alice Rohrwacher, whose The Wonders screens in competition on May 18, is one of the unrepped helmers who could attract agency attention this year, as could Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby, whose debut When Animals Dream screened in Critics Week, and French filmmaker Celine Sciamma, whose Girlhood is in Directors’ Fortnight.

None has attracted attention ahead of Cannes, but Duboz says festival buzz and reviews play little role in his decision-making. “It isn’t about the hot festival film or the hot market title,” he says. “It’s about the long term, about building a relationship with a director to build a career together.”

One of Duboz’ Cannes signings from last year was Indian helmer Ritesh Batra. His feature debut, The Lunchbox, ended up grossing $3.5 million for Sony Pictures Classics.

In years past some foreign directors -- particularly auteur types favored by Cannes -- feared signing to a Hollywood agency would mean compromising their artistic integrity, but such international titles as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from the ICM-repped Swedish helmer Tomas Alfredson and Drive from WME-repped Nicolas Winding Refn, have shown foreign helmers they can combine commercial success without sacrificing festival acclaim.

Says Klubeck: “When a film like Drive works in the U.S. and internationally, I think it shows otherwise reluctant international directors that there is a space for them to work in the English-language system without subverting their vision.”