American Buyers Are Anxious as Cannes Presents a Confused Film Industry

Eric Kohn

At Cannes, weather often provides a handy metaphor to assess the state of the market. Two years ago, downpours were an easy visual aid for the gloomy prognosis; this time, the occasional rains never lasted long, but ominous clouds loomed and an eerie chill swept through the air.

That felt about right. Netflix may not have a big presence at the festival after it made a business decision not to attend last year, but streaming platforms became the regular subject of late-night dinner table conversations, with the specter of Disney+, Apple TV+, and many others around the corner.

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“The fact is everything is going to change so quickly that in a couple of years we will face a completely different situation in terms of distribution and marketing the films,” said Alberto Barberi, the artistic director of the Venice International Film Festival, from his temporary Cannes office. “It’s very curious. But it’s also difficult to predict what it’s going to be. We know that everything is going to change, but how is another story.”

European governments continues to provide a pipeline for the filmmakers that America abandoned long ago, but the budgets have started to dwindle. “It’s not like there’s only Netflix and Marvel films,” said Olivier Père, who runs the film department at ARTE France. “We still have auteurs working, but it’s more and more difficult because all these films are not raising a lot of money.” ARTE supported the bulk of the French films at the festival, in addition to international filmmakers who sought financial support in France. But he said that governments were putting less money into those funds. “Even great auteurs, if they want to make a film in France, they will have to make their films at a lower budget,” he said.

At a post-screening rooftop gathering for “Bacurau,” Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s wild dystopian western follow-up to “Aquarius,” the enthusiasm from the premiere masked questions about how, exactly, this unclassifiable genre critique of Brazilian politics and American imperialism would ever make its way around the world. Producer Saïd Ben Saïd had been fielding offers from Netflix and others, but the price tag was deemed too high for such a risky endeavor. Fremaux, who dropped by the party to make the rounds, once again delivered an optimistic vision. “You Americans are obsessed with platforms,” he said. “You keep saying that business is down this year. But Vincent Maraval says it’s up.”

The head of heavyweight Cannes sales company Wild Bunch, Maraval tends to command a lot of attention at Cannes. His company is one of the few with the ability to inject films into major Competition slots whether or not they come from established auteurs. This year, that meant the company was able to submit Ladj Ly’s dramatic police brutality drama “Les Miserables” for a Competition slot even though it was his directorial debut, and the high-profile premiere helped it secure a U.S. sale to Amazon for a reported $1.5 million. But he was more invested in selling to other territories.

“Our goal is to build the visibility of our directors around the world, knowing that the U.S. market is far from a priority,” he said in an interview from his Paris office before the festival. “Last year in Cannes people said it was a weak Cannes. It was probably one of the best Cannes years ever. It’s just that from the point of view of the Americans, there are not enough English-language films. But a festival like Cannes is done for the world.” He was unperturbed by fears of a declining currency for cinema in light of other media. “I think there is a curiosity from audiences to see new stuff,” he said. “Our job is to create the appetite for new films.”

Filmmakers at the festival asserted their own priorities. “I think cinema is a very, very powerful tool for deconstruction,” said Mati Diop, the first black woman in Cannes Competition with her haunting “Atlantics.” The film, a dreamlike look at several women in Dakar abandoned by their partners when they flee to Europe by sea, presents an original window into the migrant crisis. “Cinema may not always change the world, but I think it’s a very powerful tool. The tools can take you very far. It all depends on whether you use them to their full potential or not.”

The French Riveria presented a dramatic backdrop as she stretched out on a couch and gazed at the bright scenery outside. “The story I wrote was really made for a larger public,” she said. “I don’t speak of the financial aspect, but the political ambition of it. This is the story I wanted to tell and it doesn’t make any sense if it isn’t shared with a real public — not only a festival one — because the subject is important enough for me to think that it should concern the world.”

For “Bacurau” director Filho, filmmaking has become a daily struggle. With a new right-wing administration voted into Brazil in January, the ministry of culture was terminated. The government was gunning for Filho, demanding that he return financing for his 2012 feature debut “Neighboring Sounds.” He found much of the financing for his latest project abroad, but was already considering making movies elsewhere. “The whole Brazilian film industry is threatened because of the cuts,” he said, in an interview at the Palais two days after his premiere. “What makes me sleep at night is that I’m not the first artist to be bullied by men – and they’re all men, of course – who occupy temporary positions of power.”

As Cannes drew to a close, “Atlantics” and “Bacurau” had yet to find U.S. buyers, but they certainly weren’t alone. Even beloved American entries like “The Climb,” a crowdpleasing buddy movie in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, had yet to secure its next steps. (It was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics before the end of the festival.)

Director Michael Covino, an experienced producer who found financing for his directorial debut out of meetings he took at Sundance two years ago, said he was unconcerned about his capacity to make movies on the back home. “It seems like independent financing of American films is alive and well,” he said, recalling his ability to secure funding through U.S. financier Topic Studios. “When we were taking the meetings, we could see that there are people hungry to make movies right now. The buyers aren’t always there. So there’s a misstep in the ladder and it’s realigning to the new system. Everyone’s just trying to figure out how to get the ladder lined up.”

Distributors are already contending with a paradigm shift. The influx of deep-pocketed Netflix and Amazon, with their capacity to gobble up worldwide rights, meant that many of the highlights from the Cannes lineup came equipped with hefty price tags that most specialty distributors couldn’t touch. Within a day of French director Celine Sciamma’s acclaimed Competition entry “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the asking price had careen from high-six figures to over $1 million. Most buyers dropped out of the bidding process early on. The movie would eventually sell U.S. theatrical rights to Neon, which split the cost with Hulu.

As the dealmaking continued, several American buyers gathered at a beach tent party late one night, commiserating over the obscene price tags beyond their reach. “It’s fucking irresponsible!” said one buyer, raising his voice over blaring music from a nearby speaker. “It’s all Amazon’s fault, too.” Another buyer spoke up. “No way,” he said. “It’s Fox Searchlight! They spent $14 million on the Terrence Malick movie. Insane.”

Another buyer spoke up. “You mean Disney,” he said. “That’s Disney.”

There was a brief pause in the conversation, as the jarring bass of the speakers shook the tent, and the roar of the beach crowd blended to a hum. Finally, one of the buyers shrugged. “It’s all just so confusing,” he said.

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