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Cannes Market: Budgets Tumble as Independent Films Get Squeezed Overseas

Variety logo Variety 5/16/2017 John Hopewell
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Viggo Mortensen, James McAvoy, Alicia Vikander, Matthew McConaughey and Amy Schumer all headline projects hitting the 2017 Cannes market.

But these days, star power alone is not enough for projects being pitched at Cannes as seismic change reshapes the independent business and its markets, led by Europe, the biggest for most U.S. independent films.

“Cast is still important. But while a few years ago it used to be a necessary and sufficient condition of sale, nowadays, if you have the wrong material, cast alone will not get the dog washed,” said Mister Smith Entertainment’s David Garrett.

“It’s the combination of marketable stars, well-honed material and a proven filmmaker which is key to giving buyers the optimum reassurance they need in the current climate,” Garrett added.

Budgets have plunged. Only a decade ago, buyers at Cannes were presented with multiple $100 million projects. Last year, only three or four projects exceeded $40 million. This year, $25 million may be the new $40 million.

“There’s a wealth of $15 million to $20 million films,” said Bloom’s Alex Walton. So buyers’ big questions will be: “‘Is that film distinctive as a story? Can it stand out?’ That’s going to be the competitive area,” Walton added.

Possible standouts include Mortensen’s FBI manhunt thriller “Unabomb” from IM Global, and Johnny Depp comedy “Richard Says Goodbye.”

StudioCanal brings spy thriller “The Tracking of a Russian Spy,” produced by Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman, in which director Nima Nourizadeh  “wants to reinvent the genre, as [he did] on ‘Project X,’” said Studiocanal’s Anne Cherel.

IMR Intl. sells Vikander in cops-vs.-monsters action-sci-fi “Freak Shift” and Jennifer Aniston comedy “Dumplin.”

Bloom has Tom Hardy’s “Fonzo,” “a new approach to a gangster movie,” said Walton, and “Book Club,” with Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen.

Schumer stars in Voltage comedy “I Feel Pretty”; McConaughey toplines Harmony Korine’s “Beach Bum” for Rocket Science; Lotus sells “Razor,” Rob Cohen’s action superhero tentpole.

Mister Smith reps “H Block,” with Pierce Brosnan, Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy — “Jim Sheridan back to his Ireland roots,” said Garrett — and “Mother,” “from a great script with fantastic feedback,” Garrett added.

Lower-cost films “aren’t just about budgets coming down. It’s about it not making sense having big budgets and not being able to lock ideal commercial talent,” said Ivan Boeing at Brazil’s Imagem.

Market forces have, however, compounded change, as can be seen in Europe.

In Germany, P&A costs have nearly doubled in a decade, though theatrical markets have pretty well plateaued. “Europe at large has lost a whole chunk of its home entertainment market,” said Constantin Film’s Martin Moszkowicz.

Independent movies are getting squeezed between Hollywood and local blockbusters, and beaten to the punch by digital platforms.

“It’s very hard to have [independent] movies that go over the €5 million bar. Usually they’re picked up by the majors or are maybe Italian comedies,” said Maria Grazia Vairo, at Italy’s Eagle Pictures.

Symptomatic of the way the industry’s evolving, Netflix and Amazon, though “a real plus” for sellers, have taken “several big-name packages off the table for what otherwise would have been projects announced in Cannes for independent buyers,” said IM Global’s Stuart Ford.

If distributors of big films simply aren’t getting them, some are taking action.

“Our strategic goal is to do more and bigger movies for the international market exactly because there isn’t so much there,” said Moszkowicz.

StudioCanal is doubling its movie production output. Some titles — Liam Neeson’s “Hard Powder” and now “Retribution” — look big-budget by current standards. “When you have the big theatrical event titles, distributors trust and follow us,” Cherel said.

The independent sector fighting back via production, may be one of this year’s Cannes’ narratives.

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