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Will Writers Strike Put a Damper on Cannes’ Big Business Plans?

Last month, the Croisette, the glamorous boulevard that serves as the central artery of Cannes, was a maze of construction that made it nearly unnavigable in places. Thin wire barriers were the only things separating the sun-speckled tourists and shoppers from gaping holes that exposed a warren of underground pipes being labored over by government crews. But as the Cannes Film Festival rapidly approaches, workers have been racing to finish the job, with city officials confident that the Croisette will be back in glittering form in time for the red-carpet rollout on May 16.

Other problems facing Cannes, though, won’t be as easily paved over. With the Writers Guild of America on strike, film and TV production is expected to taper off. If the Directors Guild or the Screen Actors Guild follow the WGA when their contracts expire in June, that slowdown could become a shutdown. And since Cannes doesn’t just highlight the latest films but is also a thriving marketplace where companies buy scripts, hawk finished movies for distribution and put together big deals, one wonders how that uncertainty will impact sales.

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“It’s been a long time since there’s been a writers strike, so it’s hard to say how significant the impact will be,” says Glen Basner, the head of FilmNation, which has both the Jude Law-Alicia Vikander period drama “Firebrand” and the Sean Penn-Tye Sheridan thriller “Black Flies” bowing in the festival’s prestigious competition. “The question for movies that are being sold at the script stage is whether a screenplay is finished or requires more work. If it needs a rewrite, then there’s a big issue with when it will get made, because nobody can do any writing while there’s a strike.”

Others believe that the full impact of a strike won’t be seen by the time studio executives hit France, because many companies have stockpiled projects in anticipation of a slowdown. But they still argue that these studios will make deals.

“They’re not going to stop spending altogether,” says John Sloss, the head of Cinetic Media and a longtime sales agent. “That would be counterintuitive.”

Some industry veterans think that a strike may raise prices on finished films or completed scripts because studios and streamers still need to make and release movies, even if writers continue to hold out for a better deal. “A slowdown in production may make companies more aggressive and give them more of an appetite for the films that we’re making, if there’s a gap in their content pipeline,” says John Friedberg, president of Black Bear Intl., which expects to have a half-dozen projects for sale.

So the studio executives who come to Cannes won’t just attend glossy premieres — they’ll be huddled in condos and hotel suites reading scripts and looking at footage and sizzle reels from a wide range of projects. Some are broadly commercial movies, such as a reboot of “Cliffhanger,” with Sylvester Stallone returning for another high-altitude adventure, while others are auteur-driven fare like Todd Haynes’ “May December,” a romantic drama with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore that’s unspooling in competition.

Buyers, however, say that they are still getting a sense of what types of movies work in a post-pandemic world. Though the theatrical box office is rebounding, fueled by hits like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Top Gun: Maverick” (which debuted at Cannes last year) and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” movies made for adults are struggling to find an audience. Last year’s awards contenders, like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and “The Banshees of Inisherin,” barely registered in terms of ticket sales. Only “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” with its $140 million global gross, proved an exception to the rule.

“It’s harder than ever,” says Tom Bernard, co­head of Sony Pictures Classics. “You must have something that lifts you above the tide, whether that’s a story or a star. You can have a great movie, but you need some hook, some type of cultural appeal, or your film just isn’t going to resonate.”

That’s making some indie buyers reticent about shelling out for movies that are available to purchase at Cannes. “U.S. domestic distributors are suffering,” says Pia Patatian, president of worldwide sales at Arclight Films. “They’re not buying as much as they used to. At a market like Berlin, they’d buy maybe 10 or 15 films, and now they’ve reduced it to less than five.”

In the past, streaming services such as Netflix, and later Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, inflated prices by shelling out tens of millions of dollars for movies on the festival circuit. But Netflix’s stock has been hit hard over the past year due to concerns that its business model isn’t profitable enough. At the same time, Amazon and Apple have invested more heavily in their own original productions, many of which are now headed to movie theaters before launching on streaming.

“The contraction already happened,” says Basner. “The streamers haven’t been so active in the last six to seven months. If you look at Sundance, Apple and Netflix bought a movie or two and Amazon didn’t really pick up anything. They are shifting their strategies, but I hope they will be active because they are an important part of how we monetize movies.”

Cannes has been a stalwart defender of the theatrical experience, refusing to show Netflix’s films in competition, for instance, because the company won’t debut them exclusively in theaters before they hit the small screen. So many attendees are happy that the importance of cinemas is finally being recognized. They believe that releasing movies on the big screen lifts their profile and generates greater profits when they hit home entertainment platforms and are licensed for television and streaming.

“It improves the economics,” says Scott Shooman, the interim head of IFC Films and the studio’s head of acquisitions. “It raises awareness and sparks more discussion and creates more value in those ancillary markets.”

The pandemic has changed the film landscape in other ways. Many of the movies that are available to buy at Cannes come with a higher price tag because making them required producers to spring for COVID testing and to factor in pandemic-related shutdowns.

“Buyers are complaining about budgets, but you cannot imagine how much prices are going up everywhere — actors are getting paid more, and you have the cost of the COVID protocol in each shooting. So films are more expensive now than ever,” says Patatian.

With COVID easing, those costs may dissipate. However, inflation is making it harder to economize. “You have the crew costs, the cost of materials, the cost of the interest on the financing for independent films,” says Basner. “It’s definitely not a time where you can push budgets down.”

It’s not just the strike, the after-effects of COVID and inflation that might overshadow the festivities. France is beset by labor unrest as French workers continue to demonstrate against unpopular economic policies that include raising the country’s retirement age. Denis Gravouil, an official of the labor union CGT, which represents energy sector workers, also sits on the administration board of the Cannes Film Festival and says a wide range of social actions will be staged during the fest, including a massive protest tentatively scheduled for May 21.

Gravouil expects some politically engaged talent and filmmakers, such as Ken Loach, to join the movement. He also points out that more than 300 people in the French film industry, including Juliette Binoche and Laure Calamy, recently signed an open letter of protest against the labor reform.

“The festival and Cannes City Hall will do everything to avoid this, but we want to benefit from the media exposure that this international event will bring to draw eyeballs on the concerto of saucepans,” he says, referring to protesters across France who have been banging the pans to express their anger.

Protests by hospitality workers are expected as well during the festival. Although Cannes has banned demonstrations along the Croisette since the 2016 terrorist attack in nearby Nice, Gravouil says the CGT is looking at other ways to conduct impactful social actions. Besides worker demonstrations, the union has threatened to cut power to the festival and other major May events in France.

Even steering clear of possible protests, Cannes is a gantlet, one that requires endurance. IFC’s Shooman says his days frequently start early in the morning, with meetings scheduled every 30 minutes or so. When he finally returns to his room from dinner around midnight, he spends the next two to three hours catching up on emails and negotiating deals. Despite the lack of sleep and jet lag, it’s worth it.

“It is fun, but you never know where the fun is going to be,” he says. “Maybe it’s being the last one let in by a stubborn guard to see the press screening for the new Tarantino film, or maybe it’s because you run into an old friend you haven’t seen in years while getting a beer. It’s easy to get jaded when you’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s still an amazing experience.”

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