Cannes Market Anxiety: Strike Fallout Threatens Star-Studded Movies

The stars are out at this year’s Cannes, and not just on the red carpet that leads up to the splashy premieres that make the festival the most glamorous celebration of movies in the world. From Daisy Ridley to Alicia Vikander, Angelina Jolie to Sylvester Stallone, Idris Elba to Jude Law, several A-list actors are attached to projects that are being brought to market at Cannes in what looks like its biggest edition in years. Will all that high-wattage talent lead to one mega-deal after another?

“It’s obviously going to be an outrageously busy market,” says Constantin Film’s Martin Moszkowicz. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much product, definitely not for the last couple of years, led by very high-profile movies with big cast, big directors, big budgets.”

Yet, the big question, Moszkowicz adds, is when and how all these projects will get made. 

“I don’t know how much people will be talking about the elephant in the room, but there’s a giant big elephant on the Croisette that’s in the shape of the Writers Guild strike,” says David Garrett, the co-founder of Mister Smith Entertainment.  

Indeed, as studio executives and sales agents hit the South of France, their eyes remain fixed on the labor strike roiling the entertainment industry.

“The strike is a bit less an immediate all-consuming issue for independent film than it is for scripted television,” says AGC Studios executive Stuart Ford. “The Cannes marketplace is primarily based on the sale of completed screenplays, which buyers can read and contractually rely upon ahead of going into production.”

Writers put their (metaphorical) pens down two weeks ago, so some film industry vets say the impact on production hasn’t been felt yet. But with the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) still far apart, people feel there will be some kind of collateral damage.

“The impact will become more visible the longer it takes,” says Thorsten Schumacher, founder and CEO of Rocket Science. “A lot of these films are international productions, but they won’t be insulated forever.”

The sword of Damocles hanging over the industry is whether the WGA stoppage will be joined from July 1, once current contracts lapse, by the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA. 

“Productions could be more delayed if actors and directors stand in solidarity with the writers,” says Delphine Perrier, the chief operating officer at Highland Film Group. 

Even if directors and actors don’t strike and the WGA dispute comes to relatively rapid resolution, disruption to TV and film production will create a knock-on production bottleneck, as when COVID-19 restrictions lifted, Garrett argues.

The international business thrives on optimism, however.

“We’ll all be engaging everybody in the usual dealmaking, just in the hope that the writers strike will eventually be solved and everything will carry on as normal,” says Garrett, who’s launching Weston Razooli’s Directors’ Fortnight title “Riddle of Fire” and “Hot Mess,” starring Emma Roberts.

Buyers certainly have a lot to choose from. Anton has Ridley’s “The Shard” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Breakout”; AGC Studios is backing alien abduction thriller “They Found Us,” from Neill Blomkamp, and Ron Howard’s survival thriller “Origin of Species,” starring Ana De Armas, Jude Law, Alicia Vikander and Daniel Brühl.

Andrew Garfield is playing astronomer Carl Sagan in “Voyagers,” from FilmNation, which also reps Dave Bautista action thriller “The Cooler” and the Stephen King adaptation “The Life of Chuck” as well as a Maria Callas biopic from Pablo Larraín that is set to star Jolie as the opera diva.

Black Bear Intl.’s slate is led by an untitled Guy Ritchie action movie, Matthew McConaughey crime thriller “The Rivals of Amziah King” and “The Monkey,” which is also from King.

Elsewhere, Independent Entertainment reps “Relax,” a biopic about the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood; Elba will star in, produce and direct action-thriller “Infernus” for Millennium Media; Mel Gibson directs Mark Wahlberg in plane-set thriller “Flight Risk” for Lionsgate; Stallone stars in a Rocket Science’s “Cliffhanger” reboot, reportedly budgeted at $80 million. 

The star-spangled product glut reflects one of the biggest ironies at this year’s Cannes: the fact that the WGA strike coincides with the international sales business on something of a rebound.

“Theatrical markets are getting healthier and healthier, Germany is now catching up on 2019,” says Moszkowicz.

E.U. and U.K. gross box office surged 70% in 2022 to €5.1 billion ($5.6 billion), 28% below the 2017-18 average. First quarter 2023 ticket sales shot up, however, another 50% in Italy, 28% in Spain and 24% in France, according to the European Audiovisual Observatory. In the U.S., blockbuster titles such as “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3” have attracted crowds.

“From a buyer perspective, [this year’s Cannes Market] looks quite promising. There’s a lot of buyer appetite in Western and Eastern Europe, Australasia, MENA and  Latin America,” says AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford.

But not every genre is working. “Dramas are having a tougher time, documentaries are having a tougher time, international films [in the U.S.] are having a difficult journey,” says Scott Shooman, IFC’s head of acquisitions and the interim head of the studio. “All that said, things that are unique or compelling or released smartly are doing really well.”

And there are more paths to profitability. Home entertainment revenues have consolidated, with global streaming platforms, pay TV incumbents and now traditional broadcasters’ VOD services all battling for the pay one window, Moszkowicz observes. That’s cushioned the blow for movies that have struggled to find their audience.

“You have to understand the economics when you buy a movie,” says Shooman. “Box office is not always the major indication of success. A theatrical release raises awareness on those ancillary revenue streams.”

Having frozen acquisitions over the last three years, some mid-sized territories in Asia — Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia — are coming back to the marketplace, says Highland Film Group’s Perrier, who is introducing the survival thriller “The Ridge,” starring Billy Magnussen.

“In terms of major territories and foreign presales, the marketplace feels more alive,” says Nick Shumaker, at Anonymous Content’s AC Independent. He notes that if you’ve got the right projects, you don’t need to “the kind of antiquated fictional strategy of just selling everything to streamers.”

Still, significant challenges remain. “The big two question marks will be: Will the Asian territories return to buying? And, will U.S. distributors, theatrical or streamers, be active? Because it’s otherwise been a very slow start to the year in the U.S. marketplace,” says AGC’s Ford.

Companies that formerly focused on arthouse projects say they have instead been more concerned with making movies for mainstream crowds. For Charades’ Pierre Mazars, that means producing commercially driven, English-language projects such as “Sanctuary,” a twisty thriller featuring Margaret Qualley as a dominatrix. That movie has sold to most major territories, including nabbing a distribution deal from Neon’s boutique label, Super.

“Sanctuary,” however, was produced and debuted before the writers went on strike. So for other filmmakers hoping that their scripts get picked up by studios, one basic hurdle remains: if, how and when will these projects get made? 

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