The red carpet is ready. The rosé chilled. And given the turmoil of the past year, the lineup looks as impressive as possible, from the auteur catnip of Wes Anderson’s star-jammed The French Dispatch (Elisabeth Moss, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and Paul Verhoeven’s scandal-ready lesbian nun drama Benedetta, to the high-octane Hollywood spectacle promised by Universal’s F9, which set a pandemic-era record for North America with its $70 million weekend debut June 25 to 27. Worldwide, the latest entry in the Fast and Furious franchise has grossed $405 million.
“Cannes [and] the in-person festivals are now more important than ever,” says Jeffrey Greenstein, president of producer-sales group Millennium Media. “We need to restore that red carpet glamour. … There’s an inherent value in that for our business.”
Cannes pushed back its original dates from mid-May to July to accommodate France’s coronavirus safety guidelines, but the timing could prove opportune. Cinemas in the U.S. and much of Europe are reopening, and there are signs of a box office bounce-back, with Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place Part II becoming the first two films post-COVID to cross the $100 million mark domestically. Even indies have seen reason to cheer. IFC’s horror comedy Werewolves Within has taken in a respectable $2.3 million in its first 10 days of release in North America. The feature is being sold worldwide by Mister Smith Entertainment.
If all goes well, Cannes could be the coming-out party the film industry has been hoping for.
COVID-19 has forced more change on the film industry — from production and financing through distribution and exhibition — in 12 months than the business had seen in the previous decade. The endless debates over “windowing” — how long a theater should have exclusive rights to screen a film before it goes online — were settled in a matter of days when theaters shuttered and studios pivoted. Universal signed a deal with AMC in summer 2020 to crunch the window between theatrical release and premium VOD to between 17 and 45 days, depending on box office performance. Disney announced day-and-date releases in the U.S. for some of its biggest titles on Disney+, and, of course, Warner Bros. made all its 2021 titles day-and-date releases with its streamer HBO Max. As cinemas reopen, and as buyers assess the films on offer in Cannes this year, the question becomes whether exhibitors can, Humpty-Dumpty-like, put those broken theatrical windows back together again.
Few think that will happen.
“The fact that the studios have already done deals with a lot of the exhibition chains means I don’t think you can go back, to close the lid on that particular Pandora’s box,” says Mister Smith Entertainment’s David Garrett, who is pitching Midas Man, a biopic of Brian Epstein (aka the “fifth Beatle”) and literary adaptation The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry to Cannes buyers this year. “That’s not a bad analogy because in the myth of Pandora’s box, the only thing left in the box was hope. I hope we’ll still have theatrical left in the box. But it won’t look the same.”
Adds Arianna Bocco, president of day-and-date pioneer IFC Films: “Nothing is going back to the way it used to be. And we all have to accept that. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
The pandemic, argues Bocco, “just speed[s] up what was inevitable” by forcing the industry to adjust to consumer demand and take “a more bespoke approach” to releasing movies: “You can’t really have a one-size-fits-all approach to theatrical distribution anymore.”
The financial damage wrought by the pandemic on the theater business is still playing out. On June 18, California theater chain Pacific Theatres Exhibition Corp., which operates ArcLight Cinemas, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and plans to liquidate its assets, though some cinemas could be saved if AMC buys them up. Elsewhere, indie cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse has emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and, with new financing in place, on June 1 announced plans to open five new theaters.
“There’s going to be a lot of tumult and a bit of upheaval until next year, I would imagine, but those who come out of this are going to be stronger,” says Bocco. “A lot of things are just happening more quickly than people were anticipating, including some of the bigger consolidations that we’re seeing across the industry. But I think theatrical will bounce back.”
The Cannes market should give a first indication of how big that bounce might be and what form the post-COVID recovery will take. IFC has put its money where its mouth is, snatching up a trio of Cannes competition titles ahead of their world premieres at the festival: Verhoeven’s Benedetta; Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District; and Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Love’s English-language debut starring Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth.
This approach — buying big and buying early — has become a go-to strategy for many indie distributors as they look to out-outmaneuver the deep-pocketed streamers and studios for top titles. Cooperation between global streamers and traditional distributors is possible — Leos Carax’s Cannes opener, Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, is going out via Amazon in the U.S. while bowing in French theaters via UGC — but the financial strength of the online giants, which only has increased during the COVID lockdowns, has encouraged the sort of ginormous global all-rights deals seen at recent film markets. The biggest indie sale out of Berlin’s European Film Market in March was a jaw-dropping $55 million Netflix deal for worldwide rights to the Scott Cooper-Christian Bale project The Pale Blue Eye.
Increasingly, says Andrew Frank, vp sales and acquisitions at Canadian distributor Mongrel Media, sales companies are keeping top projects off the independent marketplace, holding them back for the promise of cashing in with a global platform.
“We’ve had to find creative ways to do financing, to come on board earlier with films, secure our rights before the streamers get a chance [to buy up the world rights],” notes Frank.
As the global film industry descends on Cannes this year — both in-person and online — these creative new ways of doing business will be put to the test.
The indies-versus-streamers war could intensify or — if platforms shift away from acquisitions to more in-house production — reach a detente. As movie theaters reopen, old models for financing, selling and releasing independent films could prove resilient. Or they could be washed away, replaced by day-and-date and other hybrid forms.
After a year of turmoil and disruption, Cannes 2021 is looking like one big reboot of the indie film business.
“Distributors have been shaken up, exhibitions are being shaken up, and we don’t yet know what the new normal will be,” says Bocco. “Both on a studio and an independent level, we’re going to need to redefine what success looks like … but no one should expect this ship to be righted anytime soon.”
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.