Cannes Is Open for (Virtual) Business — But Will Anyone Be Buying?

Cannes Palais After Covid-19 Shutdown
Valery Hache_AFP via Getty Images

MipTV, held in Cannes every April, will go online-only in 2021

There will be no dealmaking on the Croisette this year, but global buyers and sellers are making an unprecedented attempt to get business done entirely online amid the COVID-19 lockdown. "This is obviously an experiment," says one insider.

Heading into an unprecedented Virtual Cannes Market, buyers and sellers are navigating a new landscape that likely will provide the festival acquisitions template for the foreseeable future. As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, making social distancing the norm, the stakes are higher than ever for Cannes 2020. 

Virtual Cannes will actually be two parallel markets. An official one, the Marché du Film Online (June 22-26), run by the Cannes Film Market and focusing mainly on finished films; and a parallel market run by U.S. talent agencies and major sales companies (June 22-28), which goes by the unofficial name of the A Demain Marché ("see you tomorrow" market) and will involve two days of online pitching of mostly as-yet-unshot productions in various stages of development.

"This is obviously an experiment and something that we will have to incorporate certainly for future markets in the next six to 12 to 18 months," says ICM’s Jessica Lacy, who is selling the Michael Bay-produced pandemic thriller Songbird. "There’s a lot of growing pains to figure out, but we are feeling really good about the lineup of the projects and the prospect of setting up a number of these films."

Given the festival’s date shift from early May to late June, Cannes now looks far better than it did a few months ago at the beginning of a lockdown that stretched across the planet, shuttering theaters from Beijing to New York. But now, cineplexes have begun to reopen in Europe and Asia, with box office figures in some territories like Scandinavia, Japan and South Korea exceeding expectations. Adding to the cautious optimism is the fact that U.S. theaters are poised to open up in July. Not surprisingly, buyer enthusiasm is expected to mirror COVID-19 conditions in the respective territories. As such, Europe and Asia look good, Latin America appears bleak and the U.S. falls somewhere in the middle.  

"Buyers are wary," says Mister Smith Entertainment’s David Garrett, who is selling the Tessa Thompson starrer Balestra and To Leslie with Allison Janney. "They are only going to go for the very glittery and shiny projects and the ones that look pretty certain that they will be made."

Even if predictions of a second wave hitting in the fall come to fruition, buyers need to line their slates with product for 2021-22. With the three-month production hiatus having caused a great deal of production disruption, some of the bigger titles like the Mark Wahlberg-Baltasar Kormakur reteaming Arthur the King and the Nick Jonas-Laurence Fishburne pairing The Blacksmith are looking to shoot this year. But others — like the Will Smith-led runaway slave thriller Emancipation — are taking a chance that 2021 looks like a safer bet for beginning production.

"There's a real appetite in this market for projects that have a clear, obvious appeal with a strong marketing hook that cut through the clutter," says Endeavor Content’s Alex Walton, who is selling the Kristen Stewart-as-Princess Diana drama Spencer. "As long as they are priced well enough and have a strong home entertainment capacity, buyers could really embrace them."

Buyers are particularly vulnerable if future lockdowns become a reality and are looking for ways to hedge their bets so as not to be stuck paying for product that arrives late or not at all. Some say they will put down only a deposit until a film has started shooting and pay the balance 30 days before principle photography begins.

"For all of us to stay in business we need films to be made and part of the purpose of this virtual market is to galvanize buyers to get back into the market and start things up again," says attorney Lindsay Conner, chair of the entertainment group at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. "The blend of creative optimism and business realism that drives our industry requires compromise, and this year’s unprecedented virtual market will be a master class in compromise."

In fact, the need for cooperation and collaboration — even in the über-competitive world of indie film sales — may be the greatest upside of this year’s market. 

"We’ve all done everything we can to make it a seamless process across the globe, being able to do these presentations and meetings over the course of different time zones,” says Lacy. "Everybody is just working together to continue to keep the independent market viable, and it’s been refreshing. I’ve never spoken with the other agencies more in my life."