Australian distributors have returned from Cannes lamenting the scarcity of “buzz” titles but happy to have bought a handful of US, UK and foreign films.

According to some buyers, international sales agents are finding it tough to package films with marketable talent because many of the actors they want are working in high-end TV.

“I heard many times from sales agents that access to bankable talent is becoming harder as the film industry is facing tougher competition from the world of TV,” Icon CEO Greg Hughes tells IF.

That quandary is confirmed by Natalie Brenner, head of sales at UK –based Metro International Entertainment. “There seem to be a lot of films struggling to attract meaningful names and as shooting dates get pushed back or projects put on hold,” says Brenner, who had a fruitful Cannes with Nina, the biopic of tortured singer Nina Simone starring Zoe Saldana, which Entertainment One will release in Australia, and the Spandau Ballet documentary Soul Boys of the Western World.

“Film production is in direct competition with high-end TV production which is attracting a lot of key cast away from movies,“ adds Brenner.

Hughes observed another key trend in Cannes: the return of the traditional model where profits are derived largely from theatrical and TV windows  as home entertainment can no longer plug holes in revenues and profits.

“The worldwide decline in DVD and ancillary revenues (which is now affecting Australia) is sorting the men from the boys and the industry is undergoing the consolidation that comes with the ‘maturity’ stage of the life cycle,” he says.

Icon closed deals on three films including the Simon Pegg comedy Absolutely Anything, which is being directed by Terry Jones and features some of the Monty Python troupe, and has a couple of offers pending.

“We were looking for three or four so we are happy with our market haul,” Hughes says. “There was fewer products in the mid-to-high tier of production budgets but what was available was packaged and likely to be made so that’s no bad thing. Some are saying that we are reaching a watershed where the industry is shifting bias to quality not quantity; if so then that is a welcome development.”

Transmission Films co-founder Andrew Mackie has a similar perspective, noting, “Generally the market felt softer than usual, with many sales agents not bringing new titles to the market – somewhat unheard of for Cannes. I sensed there was a buyer appetite – but the projects weren't there to create much heat.”

Mackie was delighted with the footage he saw of a batch of films that Transmission had pre-bought including Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth and Anton Corbijn’s Life (both produced by See-Saw Films), Todd Haynes’ Carol, feminist drama Suffragette, John Crowley’s Brooklyn, Mia Wasikowska- starrer Madam Bovary and Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert.

Entertainment One picked up Juan Antonio Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a fantasy drama about a boy who seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mother's terminal illness, starring Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson; Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, the story of an American (Matthew McConaughey) and a Japanese man (Ken Watanabe) who meet in Japan’s infamous "Suicide Forest"; and Sean Penn’s The Last Face, which will star Charlize Theron and Xavier Bardem as doctors who face tough decisions while humanitarian relief work in Africa.

“We screened quite a few films we had acquired from script, the jewel in the crown being Pride starring Bill Nighy and Dominic West,” says eOne’s Jude Troy. “It was also wonderful to see Zoe Saldana in a tour de force performance in Nina.

“It was a fairly flat market on the home entertainment front; however we did pick up Skin Trade, an action thriller starring Dolph Lundgren.”

Roadshow Films snapped up Story of Your Life, which will star Amy Adams as an expert linguist who is recruited by the military to determine whether aliens have come in peace or are a threat, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies).

Studiocanal Australia gets two Studiocanal productions, Bastille Day, a Paris-set action thriller starring Idris Elba as a rogue CIA operative, and Legend, which stars Tom Hardy in the dual roles of the infamous Kray twins Ronnie and Reggie; and it picked up James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, the 1925-set saga of a British explorer who ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a lost civilisation and never returned, which will star Robert Pattinson and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Umbrella Entertainment bought one film, title under wraps. Umbrella MD Jeff Harrison says, “Great scripts were not abundant. The state of affairs was clear— the business is going through a transition with what appears to be fewer quality films on the market to fulfil buyers’ needs.”

Palace Films’ Nic Whatson confirmed one acquisition, Leviathan, a withering portrait of Russian state corruption and lack of justice, which screened in competition and got rave reviews. Whatson is working his way through deals for up to eight other titles, noting, “It's been a busy festival.”

Curious Films’ Sarah Noonan rated the films in official selection as “a little disappointing, both commercially and artistically.”

Noonan, who is negotiating for a few titles, observes, “As a boutique distributor, we are always in the –very competitive – market for stand out films that can make their mark in crowded distribution landscape. At Cannes we are looking for films for theatrical release, rather than DVD or other platforms. From that perspective, it was a challenging market.”


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