Cannes: Studios Will Likely Muscle Out Indie Buyers for Hot Fare

Chris Hemsworth - Tiffany Haddish-Getty-Split-H 2019
John Phillips/Getty Images; Kevin Mazur/MG19/Getty Images

The search for a hit is harder than ever. "It's become the business of finding a unicorn," said one exec.

The day before the Cannes market even got under way, Glen Basner was taking meetings with prospective buyers for the FilmNation action-comedy Down Under Cover. The film, which will star Avengers: Endgame’s Chris Hemsworth and Girls Trip’s Tiffany Haddish, offers a new take on the time-tested Lethal Weapon-Beverly Hills Cop formula, this time with Aussie male strippers carrying out casino heists.

Not surprisingly, the film is being courted by major studios, looking to pay around $40 million for the film given the combination of Hemsworth (soon to be heading up Sony’s Men in Black reboot) and established comedy star Haddish and the film’s franchise potential.

"Then again, Netflix could come in and pay $50 million for the film because all of us can’t figure out the value beyond $40 million," said one potential buyer.

Regardless of where it lands, Down Under Cover illustrates the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in the film world, with only a handful of companies — namely the major studios and their specialty divisions as well as Lionsgate and STX — still able to pull off the wide release of an independently financed film. In fact, smaller distributors are increasingly getting muscled out of the running for splashy fare, and this year’s market, which runs from May 14-23, will likely be no exception.

With a budget of $150 million, Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi disaster film Moonfall — being sold by Stuart Ford’s AGC — would also seem like a film with a limited number of suitors. Ditto the Chris Pine starrer Violence of Action, an adrenaline-fueled film (think Mile 22) that sees the Star Trek/Wonder Woman lead on a deadly black ops mission. Even a smaller film — like opening nighter The Dead Don’t Die — typically needs a major studio’s backing.

"Obviously indie distributors like A24 have been spectacularly successful in what they do. But those are the rare exceptions. Having the coordination that Focus and Universal gives us will allow Dead Don't Die to go out more broadly into the market and hopefully — there are so many zombie jokes here — do 'monstrous business,' " said the film’s producer Joshua Astrachan.

The Cannes market has shifted to one of fewer, but higher-quality films. Only movies that can justify a theatrical release have much chance of selling.

"We used to do 10 movies a year; this year we'll be happy if we do four," said Nicolas Chartier, president/CEO of Voltage Pictures. "Movies that don't go theatrical just aren't as viable in the current market. It's become the business of finding a unicorn. You need to find the perfect movie that doesn't cost too much and has a defined audience."

Also putting pressure on the international distributors is the fact that when a studio buys, it almost always is looking for worldwide rights.

"Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Pictures — they rarely only take the U.S., so you have to be careful not to presell it too aggressively to independent buyers,” says Gabrielle Stewart, managing director of HanWay Films, whose Cannes slate includes Robin Wright's directorial debut Land and romantic drama Wild Mountain Thyme with Jamie Dornan and Holliday Grainger.

Even after the majors have their fill, this year’s market offers plenty to go around.

"It feels like there’s quite a bit for sale in the marketplace and quite a bit of activity," says STXinternational president John Friedberg. "Overall, there are good projects. We’ll see where some of these projects land."

A version of this story appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 14 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.