Cannes Dealmakers Give High Marks as the Marche du Film Online Wraps

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The Cannes Palais may have been empty, but plenty of business got done at the Virtual Market.

Market regulars may have missed the croisette, but robust sales, strong project slates and highly organized meetings, events and presentations came as a pleasant surprise: "Doing everything online has been incredibly efficient."

No one knew what to expect going into the first (and all agree, hopefully the last) Virtual Cannes Market but as the Marché du Film Online wraps up, sellers sorting through their deal memos and international distributors haggling over final contract details rate this one-off a success.

“The projects have been great, the buzz is there and deals are getting done,” said one 25-year Cannes veteran who buys for multiple international territories. “Doing everything online has been incredibly efficient. No running from cinema to the market and back. Everyone's just a click away.”

“We don't have to run up and down the beach to meetings and presentations, everything is arranged for us,” concurred Cai Gongming, CEO of Chinese specialty distributor Road Pictures, which bought Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life and Pedro Almodovar's Pain and Glory at Cannes last year. “I'm doing everything here with my team at a very comfortable hotel conference room in Beijing. It's much, much cheaper too...I think the quality of the presentations also has been very high — people have put a lot of time into them, and we are probably getting a higher-quality, more efficient presentation than we would in person in Cannes. But this is still no replacement for the atmosphere and excitement of the real Cannes.”

While none of the buyers were complaining about the number and quality of the projects on offer — the Will Smith-starrer Emancipation, AGC Studios' Nick Jonas actioner The Blacksmith and Rocket Science's Brit drama Mothering Sunday starring Colin Firth and Olivia Colman were among the picks of a very good crop this year — some did lament the lack of energy in the virtual, pre-recorded presentations put out by the agencies and sales companies.

“It’s just not the same… the vibe ain’t there,” said one European distributor. “You just don’t get carried away with it as you once would.”

But the lockdown hasn't shuttered the deal making, which has come fast and furious, with several big-ticket titles closing for domestic and worldwide as Virtual Cannes wraps.

The biggest deal of the market will likely be a $75 million plus worldwide buyout for Emancipation, which CAA is handling domestically and Glen Basner's FilmNation is selling worldwide, expected to close a high eight-figure worldwide deal before Virtual Cannes wraps up. MGM, Lionsgate, Universal and Warner Bros., along with Apple, are believed to have put in bids for the project.

STX Entertainment nabbed worldwide rights on horror thriller Run Rabbit Run — which will see Elisabeth Moss re-team with her Handmaid’s Tale director Daina Reid in a scary tale about a fertility doctor who begins to be terrified of own daughter. STX will release the film, set to start production this summer in Australia, directly in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland and has taken over sales in the rest of the world via its STXinternational banner.

MGM lead a studio spending spree, closing a deal for remaining international territories on Endeavor Content's hotly-anticipated sequel Bill & Ted Face the Music, scooping up France, Italy, Spain and South Korea to go with the many other territories (including Germany and Latin America) where it has already pre-bought the time-traveling comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Bill & Ted is set to be one of the first big new films to hit U.S. theaters, with United Artists Releasing planning an Aug. 14 domestic bow.

AGC Studios' CEO Stuart Ford said The Blacksmith is set to sell out worldwide following strong buyer response to a taped Q&A on Monday between Ford and French director Pierre Morel (Taken), who is set to helm the would-be franchise.

"We generated many more eyeballs for our virtual presentation than we ever had a ballroom at the Majestic," Ford said. "It triggered a spurt of sales and offers."

Electing not to go with a studio or global streamer for the film, AGC has closed deals on Blacksmith with major international independents, including with Constantin for Germany and Switzerland, Metropolitan for France and Entertainment Film for the U.K.

For a project like The Blacksmith, which is budgeted in the mid-$30 million range, Ford said it makes more sense to "break up sales territory by territory" instead of "getting one big check" for worldwide rights from a studio or streamer. The calculation shifts for bigger-budget titles. "A $70 million - $80 million production is not easy to finance out of the international marketplace," says Ford, "so I understand the desire to have someone else sweep in, a streamer or studio, to get the film greenlit."

There was also plenty of activity in the foreign and specialty space with Totem Film's Gagarine — a drama set in the rough Parisian suburbs that buyers are calling a “less violent, more hopeful” take on Ladj Ly's 2019 sleeper hit Les Miserables — and Thomas Vinterberg's “pro-alcoholism” drama Another Round starring Mads Mikkelsen — among the finished films generating the strongest buyer buzz.

But with cinemas only open in a few countries and many backlots and production hubs still under lockdown, distributors can't know for certain when new projects will be able to shoot, much less deliver. “Most of the new projects were saying we're 'aiming to shoot in September/October,” noted one Brit buyer wryly, “yeah sure, like that’s gonna happen.”

Chinese distributors, which have been a major driver at Cannes in recent years, mainly sat out this virtual version.

“I'm mostly browsing,” said Yiran Song, an acquisitions executive for Chinese distributor Times Vision, usually an active buyer of theatrical and VOD rights. Cinemas in China have been closed for six months and Beijing has yet to set a date for re-opening. Chinese film companies large and small are hurting. Many are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

“We have to be mindful of pricing and what our partners are experiencing in their home territories,” says Jeffrey Greenstein of Millennium Films, which has the high-concept actioner Till Death starring Megan Fox on its Virtual Cannes line-up. “We're not giving any discounts, mind you, but we have to be making the right films for the right price," he says. "At this moment, no one wants to make a major commitment, so it is either about selling smaller, high-concept titles that can be made quickly and easily and get out there or, for the bigger franchise films, to take a longer view. We're operating under the mindset that business will be back to where it was in 12 months time and that films that come out then will have the same value the would have had before corona.”

Patrick Brezski in Tokyo and Alex Ritman in London contributed to this report.