Rocket Science Takes Off in Cannes, Champions Independent Model Amid Streamer Surge

·4-min read

Most U.K. sales agents sent slimmed-down teams — or none at all — to Cannes this year, but Rocket Science CEO Thorsten Schumacher had no qualms about getting back to business as usual on the Croisette.

Rocket Science has two films in the festival: Sean Penn-directed competition title “Flag Day” and Eva Husson’s “Mothering Sunday,” starring Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young. The sales firm is also shopping one of the buzziest titles at the Pre-Cannes Screenings: Todd Haynes’ “May December.”

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“As a business decision, it obviously would have been easier and cheaper to do it on Zoom, but I thought it was [important] for us as a company to project that we’re at the forefront of reopening that door and going back out and supporting the festival,” says Schumacher, a former managing director of HanWay Films. He brought a large team down to Cannes, where the shingle is again occupying its Croisette office space directly overlooking the Grand Palais.

Set up in late 2016, Rocket Science has become one of the independent sector’s most prolific sales firms, responsible for films such as “The Trial of Chicago Seven” and “French Exit.” During the pandemic, the business managed to shoot a trio of projects in Australia and a similar number in the U.K. “We have almost done more in the last 12 months than we did in any previous year,” says Schumacher.

Rocket Science may have had to unwind some international deals on Oscar-nominated courtroom drama “The Trial of Chicago Seven,” when Paramount wasn’t able to release the movie during the pandemic and it sold into Netflix, but Schumacher considers that deal something of an anomaly when it comes to the company’s usual business dealings.

“We always try to champion the independent model,” says Schumacher. “That’s how I was brought up at HanWay, with an independent library, which we sold in each territory each year or every couple of years. That’s really protecting the filmmakers’ equity ownership of the film and the copyright.”

Business is changing, though. And Schumacher, for a period, was worried about the middlemen, likes sales agents. However, the pandemic and rampant M&A activity such as the Amazon-MGM deal and the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger has given him renewed confidence that there’s a place for sales outfits in helping creatives navigate the new frontier.

“It’s such a maze,” Schumacher explains. “Our job is: we set the table, we invite all the dinner guests, but we don’t let anybody in the kitchen. We need to create the most competitive situation and all these very different types of offers and scenarios for the film, and then present them to the filmmakers, and make it easy for them to compare, because they’re not apples and oranges.”

One recent deal that goes some way in defining the Rocket Science ethos is the Robbie Williams biopic “A Better Man,” directed by “The Greatest Showman” helmer Michael Gracey, which Schumacher bills a “catalyst title” for his company.

With a $100 million budget shooting in Australia, the project attracted the streamers, studios and independents, but ultimately the filmmakers went with the latter “because they were just the top distributors in each country, they made the most compelling overall argument for the film,” says Schumacher.

The executive explains that the deal — which saw the movie sold into the likes of Village Roadshow in Australia, Lucky Red in Italy and Tobis in Germany and Australia, among other territories — worked because it amassed foreign money to make the film, avoided cross territories to protect the back end later on and was ultimately a “great creative dialogue” that left the filmmakers in control.

“It was amazing: all these independents came through and jumped at this film in a very competitive situation,” says Schumacher.

Nonetheless, the deal was a gamble. The big-budget movie had a director with, effectively, one major credit (albeit one that grossed $435 million), no A-list cast and a simian lead that doesn’t quite look like the singer it’s meant to be portraying. “It’s kind of a crazy idea,” Schumacher admits, “but I love that you have these entrepreneurial-spirited distributors who said, ‘We want to do it.’ And that’s exactly what’s propelled the independent business forward.”

In Cannes, Rocket Science still has some final deals to get done around “Mothering Sunday” and “Flag Day.” Another priority is the Shailene Woodley-starring “Robots,” which needs to close soon. Meanwhile, “May December” director Todd Haynes is also on the ground to woo distributors and “complete the sales journey.”

“It’s going to be really fun to have the distributors meet up with the filmmakers and kick off those journeys [and] expeditions,” muses Schumacher.

(Pictured, L-R: Thorsten Schumacher, Andra Rafoi, Levi Woodward, Diane Ferrandez, Jonathan Lynch-Staunton, Claire Taylor)

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