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A Shaky Theatrical Market Looms Over the True Return to Normal for the Cannes Film Festival

A version of this story about the Cannes market first appeared in Cannes issue of TheWrap magazine.

Saying last year’s Cannes was a return to normal might have been a misnomer. Sure, COVID was manageable and people were able to gather in person without the mandatory testing of previous years, but the transition from almost two years of isolation back to travel was a slow one. “Even though last year was a pretty robust market, there were still the remnants of COVID and certain territories not traveling,” said Dylan Leiner, Sony Pictures Classics’ EVP of acquisitions and production.

For many traveling to France in May, this year’s festival may finally be the return to normal that people are hoping for. “This may be one of the largest, most attended markets we’ve ever seen for Cannes,” said Jason Buckley, EVP of worldwide sales and distribution for Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, who also cites how few apartments are available to rent in the expensive city on the French Riviera. “This market, in general is going to be one of the bigger ones we’ve seen post-COVID.”

The Marché du Film, the Cannes marketplace that takes place in the Palais des Festivals a couple of floors below the theaters that will screen films from the official selection, estimates it will attract 12,500 film professionals from 121 countries, showcase 4,000 films and hold more than 100 conferences. Films for sale there will range from the art-house titles in the Cannes program to genre flicks and unmade projects in search of international financing to move from the page to the screen.

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But the optimism is cautious, many participants in this year’s market said. Though government mandates with regards to COVID-19 are gone, the economy, particularly in the U.S., is still getting back on its feet after several months of inflation. Media companies are closing up shop, engaging in hiring freezes or reducing budgets in the wake of a still shaky theatrical market. In that challenging environment, it sounds surprising that anyone can be optimistic. Yet people are.

“Cannes has always been a big market for big movies—the bigger-budget movies with big talent. So I’m expecting it to be the same,” said Tamara Birkemoe, partner and CEO of Palisades Park Pictures. This, according to her, is in spite of a softer turnout of films through the European Film Market at Berlin.

For many, enthusiasm is buoyed by a strong slate of titles set to showcase at Cannes, including Martin Scorsese’s three-hour-plus epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” (for Apple) and Disney’s hotly anticipated sequel “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” Among films looking for distribution, Leiner points to Ken Loach’s “The Old Oak” as one to watch, particularly since it’s rumored to be the iconic director’s final film, as well as Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days” and “Anselm.” “You’re seeing a combination this year of the old guard, old legends and emerging filmmakers,” Leiner said. “What makes Cannes exciting is the convergence of generations and talent.” Village Roadshow’s Buckley added, “A lot of quality titles are coming to the market.”

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Apple Original Films

For Sony Classics, the mandate is theatrical first, with Leiner emphasizing that they will pursue films that can play in theaters and yield high audience turnout. But other studios, according to Buckley, are reassessing where theaters fit into the big picture. “Theatrical has changed, so appetites have changed,” he said. Interestingly, this year’s CinemaCon, the trade show put on by the National Association of Theater Owners, is influencing the way some studios look at Cannes acquisitions. James Huntsman, owner of Blue Fox Entertainment, pointed to comments by various studio heads reiterating that theatrical releases are paramount, coupled with Amazon and Apple investing in theatrical windows for their titles.

“Theatrical will start to weave itself back into the conversation for not only larger films, but also independent movies of all genres because there’s a growing market for that audience,” he said.

But there are challenges to that, especially in foreign countries. “China is still not buying like they used to,” Birkemoe said. “You could count a big amount of money out of China two years ago.” The falloff in Chinese money, she said, is due to limitations on non-Chinese releases, as well as the country’s absence of a robust VOD model. For her, the marketplace is seeing a stronger turnout from Latin American and German buyers.

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Every territory, Buckley said, has its own problems in today’s market. “Look at Southeast Asia, for example,” he said. “I went to Hong Kong Film Mart in March, spoke to many, many clients in each one of the territories within the region, and it has changed for them because the theater is not back yet. What do you do now if you don’t have theatrical in these regions? What’s going to shake out for those independent distributors? There’s gonna be an acquisition strength, there’s still gonna be a lot of activity, but the numbers might be a little less. It’ll come full circle again, but coming into this market, particularly, it may be a little lighter.”

Lisa Gutberlet, Head of International for Blue Fox, seconds that international buying power has changed at Cannes. “The times of a company going into an international marketplace where they acquire 20 movies at a time, I’m not so sure that’s the strategy for some of these international buyers anymore,” she said.

That being said, in spite of the hesitancy, no one can deny the amount of quality on display at this year’s Cannes.

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Lucasfilm

In recent years, both Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car have gone on to secure Best Picture nominations (and decent grosses) after generating heat at the festival, while 2019’s Parasite became the first film in more than 60 years to win the Palme d’Or and the top Oscar. “You never really know,” Leiner said.

“I don’t think when ‘Triangle of Sadness‘ and ‘Drive My Car’ premiered in Cannes anybody could have predicted that they would be Best Picture nominees.” But buyers at this year’s Cannes can always hope.

Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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