Will Cannes Rebound After Hollywood Strikes Overshadowed Last Year’s Market

Like many film executives, Tamara Birkemoe spends much of the Cannes Film Festival sprinting from lunches to drinks to dinners, as she meets with potential distributors, financiers and filmmakers

Published Time: 09.05.2024 - 18:31:29 Modified Time: 09.05.2024 - 18:31:29

Like many film executives, Tamara Birkemoe spends much of the Cannes Film Festival sprinting from lunches to drinks to dinners, as she meets with potential distributors, financiers and filmmakers. Most nights, the Palisades Park CEO hosts a cocktail hour at the company’s temporary headquarters directly across from the Palais des Festivals, where Cannes’ biggest premieres are held.

“We are looking to dazzle people,” she says, noting that her office boasts a commanding view of the red carpet. “We want to entertain people in fancy places and impress them with our presentation. This is the entertainment business after all, so you might as well work hard, but have fun while you’re doing it.”

That glamour that Birkemoe and others seek in the south of France continues to be the defining feature of Cannes as it prepares to launch its 77th edition this month. But despite the parties on the sparkling Riviera, the red-carpet haute couture and the superficial gloss of the entertainment industry, the movie business has lost some of its luster. Cinemas are still missing a big piece of their pre-pandemic audience, which has left the box office down more than 20% in 2024. At the same time, last year’s writers and actors strikes scrambled production, leaving studios with fewer movies to release. Oh, and most of the major companies have seen their share prices tumble as Wall Street has soured on the economics of streaming, forcing them into a new period of belt-tightening. Contraction and cost-cutting, two themes alien to the expansive and expensive Cannes aesthetic, are now in vogue.

“It’s a period of confusion,” admits Glenn Kendrick Ackermann, a sales agent who is at Cannes looking for buyers for the Peter Facinelli-Charlotte Radford supernatural drama “Can You Hear Me?” “Theatrical admissions are down, and people aren’t going back to cinemas in droves. The traditional formulas are not working in the way they once did. People are trying to figure things out.”

A sense of paralysis characterized last year’s Cannes. And is that any surprise? After all, the festival was held a few weeks after the Writers Guild of America hit the picket lines and two months before SAG-AFTRA, the leading actors union, struck. In that climate, filmmakers struggled to generate interest in their next movies, let alone get them made.

“We had big plans for a number of projects,” notes Birkemoe. “They were all going into motion at the time, and that all stopped for a while with the strikes. Things slowed down, and unfortunately, some projects will not get picked up again.”

Birkemoe and many others believe that despite its challenges, the movie business is turning a corner — or at the very least, approaching a bend in a bumpy road. Ticket sales for niche titles haven’t rebounded to pre-COVID highs, but there have been some recent success stories. A24’s “Civil War” is one of the highest-grossing movies in the studio’s history, while Focus Features’ “Asteroid City” and “The Holdovers” were solid performers. That’s to say nothing of indie horror hits like Neon’s “Immaculate” or IFC’s “Late Night With the Devil,” both of which topped $10 million at the domestic box office.

“I really feel like we’re on the other side of a lot of things,” says Scott Shooman, head of AMC Networks film group. “The audience has become clearer — we’re seeing who is going to movies and the type of movies they want to see. And there’s a strong lineup of new movies at Cannes this year.”

Shooman notes that the festival is screening many films from seasoned filmmakers that still need distribution. These include “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola’s decades-in-the-making epic, which stars Adam Driver, as well as “Oh, Canada,” a drama reuniting Paul Schrader with his “American Gigolo” star Richard Gere, and Ali Abbasi’s “The Apprentice,” featuring Sebastian Stan as Donald Trump when he was young and the apple of his attorney Roy Cohn’s eye. At Cannes, executives pack in multiple screenings every day as they look to land at least one high-profile movie to justify their European jaunt.

“You come because there’s always that chance that you might find the next big foreign-language film or that hot young American director who’s about to break out,” says Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics.

But buyers like Bernard aren’t just interested in the films that land splashy debuts at the Palais. Cannes is also a thriving market, where agents take meetings up and down the Croisette, searching for financing for films that often come with directors and actors attached to them. This year, some of the buzziest packages include “The Ritual,” a tale of exorcism that features Al Pacino and Dan Stevens as priests; “Way of the Warrior Kid,” an inspirational drama about a Navy SEAL that will star Chris Pratt; “Kill Me,” a murder mystery with Allison Williams and Charlie Day; and the coming-of-age comedy “Sunny Dancer,” starring “The Last of Us” breakout Bella Ramsey. On paper, many of these look like winners. However, film industry veterans say that it’s difficult to figure out what films have the right cast or the kind of compelling hook that will actually get audiences to turn up at a th -


“You need to make films that have original stories that haven’t been told before, but you also need the right caliber of talent to make them sellable,” says John Friedberg, president of Black Bear International. “And they have to be made for the right budget. It’s a tough recipe to get right.”

Sales agents stress that more glitzy movies would have been available if the strikes hadn’t happened. They’ve been engaged in a mad scramble to line up actors, most of whose schedules are jammed as they try to finish up projects that were in production or were about to start shooting when talks with SAG-AFTRA broke down.

“We’re finding that things that were sort of set up last year are fine, but trying to set up new things is very hard in terms of the availability issue,” says Gabrielle Stewart, CEO of HanWay Films.

When it comes to pitching studios and streamers, executives like Stewart may face new teams with different priorities. Netflix, for instance, has a fresh film chief in Dan Lin, who recently took over for Scott Stuber. The company was very active at past editions of Cannes, spending $50 million to buy “Pain Hustlers” with Emily Blunt and $11 million to pick up the Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore drama “May December.” But Netflix has signaled it wants to release fewer films, joining a long line of Hollywood players that are looking to economize, and some agents privately say they don’t expect it or the other streamers to be as active at Cannes.

But others are quick to note that recent festivals like Toronto and Sundance saw their share of big deals, despite being held during the strikes or in the immediate aftermath. Netflix, for instance, spent a lot on Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” and the documentary “Skywalkers,” while Warner Bros. Discovery shelled out $15 million for “Super/Man,” a documentary about the late actor and advocate Christopher Reeve.

“There’s still an outrageous amount of money allocated to production of content and acquisition of content,” John Sloss, a veteran sales agent, notes. “I don’t know if that’s diminished much.”

But it’s hard to escape a sense of pessimism that’s gripping the industry as it brushes off its passports. Netflix and its ilk may still spend, but not at the levels they once did, and the film business, at least the one that relies on cinemas, faces more competition than ever from gaming, YouTube and TikTok. Glen Basner, the founder of FilmNation, has been coming to Cannes for decades. He’s seen it rise and fall in popularity and prominence, and he’s weathered his share of economic downturns and setbacks, starting FilmNation in 2008 during the Great Recession. He’s growing tired of the doom and gloom he’s hearing around the business.

“The biggest challenge we face is fear and uncertainty,” Basner says. “We need to dust ourselves off from COVID and the strikes and start thinking optimistically. We can’t get stuck in this negative conversation loop. People need to move beyond all that because it’s fucking great to work in the movie business.”

Alex Ritman contributed to this report.

A surprising number of films in Cannes’ official selection are heading to the Croisette without distribution deals in key territories. Here’s a look at attractive features ready for the right buyer.

Ali Abbasi’s buzzy drama stars Sebastian Stan as the young version of Donald Trump and Jeremy Strong as his consigliere, Roy Cohn. Unspools in competition.

Sales:Rocket Science

Karim Aïnouz returns to Canneswith this erotic thriller. His2023 Cannes entry, “Firebrand,”sold worldwide.

SalesThe Match Factory

Cannes veteran Andrea Arnold’s latest stars Oscar-nominated Barry Keoghan, whose career is hotter than hot now, and Franz Rogowski, another actor finally earning acclaim.

SalesCornerstone Films

A lot has been written about Francis Ford Coppola’s self-financed epic, and buyers are circling but may hold off on any deals till its Cannes bow. Coppola’s lawyer Barry Hirsch is courting buyers; French indie distrib Le Pacte is close to securing a deal for France.

David Cronenberg returns with a powerhouse cast — Vincent Cassell, Diane Kruger, Guy Pearce — in a film that has genre fans drooling. Should elicit lots of distrib interest.

SalesSBS Intl.

Paul Schrader secured one of the biggest young stars in the world right now — Jacob Elordi — alongside veteran Richard Gere in this adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel “Foregone.” Sounds like prestige awards season material for the right buyer.


Celebrated auteur Kirill Serebrennikov’s offers a timely English-language adaptation of Emman­uel Carrère’s fictionalized biography of radical Russian poet and political dissident Eduard Limonov, played by Ben Whishaw.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Noemie Merlant and her “Fire” director Céline Sciamma co-wrote this fantastical comedyhorror movie, directed by Merlant. Great pedigree for an adventurous buyer.


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