At Cannes, Who Needs a Sales Agent?

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

With several high-profile deals negotiated directly by producers, insiders say certain special projects don't require traditional middlemen (or their commissions).

At least three major domestic rights deals have closed on the ground in Cannes, none of which were negotiated by domestic sales agents.

The films that sold without the help of a U.S.-based agency include Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer to A24, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle to Sony Pictures Classics and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo to Amazon Studios.

In each case, the films’ producers negotiated directly with the buyer, eliminating the middlemen and their commissions. That’s more than pocket change when it comes to a film like Peterloo, a pricey true-story drama set in 1819 that will involve complex sets with hundreds of extras (some 700 people were injured when government forces ambushed a peaceful pro-democracy rally).

Whether the trio of films sparks a trend or is an anomaly remains to be seen. But SPC co-president Tom Bernard says the practice represents a return to an earlier era. "Some of these producers are emulating the way Saul Zaentz operated," Bernard says of the late Oscar-winning producer of such films as Amadeus and The English Patient. "He was a hands-on producer and came to Cannes and sold his films around the world. Some would be pre-bought and others on footage screened and some after the film was finished.”

In the case of Peterloo, executive producer Gail Egan brokered the North American rights deal for Amazon to acquire the $20 million to $30 million film, while Film4, which is developing and co-financing, negotiated on behalf of itself.

With Elle, there already is a longstanding relationship between Sony and Verhoeven, making a domestic sales agent somewhat redundant. "Sony has always been my home in the U.S.," says Verhoeven, whose Black Book also was released by the studio. "I’m pleased that even my European films have ended up with them."

Agents still play a vital role and are involved in nearly every transaction at Cannes and other festivals. CAA and WME teamed up to make the $9 million deal for STX Entertainment to acquire U.S. and China rights to Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. But though that dollar figure is impressive, it is dwarfed by Amazon’s Peterloo deal.

For Sacred Deer, CAA was in pole position because it made the deal in February for Lanthimos’ The Lobster — also starring Colin Farrell — to move from financially troubled Alchemy to A24. At the time, the producers decided to sell their next movie to A24 before it was cast and shopped.

All three films follow in the footsteps of a sale from 2015’s Cannes market: the Cate Blanchett-Robert Redford starrer Truth. When the news initially broke, CAA and WME were credited with selling the film to SPC. But producer Brett Ratner quickly nixed that idea. "I sold that movie directly to Sony Pictures Classics,"he said at the time. "I have the relationships. Why would I need a sales agent?"