Deborah McIntosh and Alex Walton are Croisette veterans, but this year marks their first Cannes Film Festival as the heads of WME Independent.
WME Independent brought domestic and international film sales and financing consulting services back inside the agency after it was spun out from Endeavor Content. (WME parent Endeavor agreed to divest at least 80 percent of its stake in Endeavor Content under the terms of a 2021 deal struck with the WGA. South Korean media giant CJ ENM has since purchased a majority share.)
After establishing their new operation in October — following two years of virtual markets — the two are looking forward to a return to the South of France. “I’ll never forget the first market virtually, where you just turn off your Zoom and turn around and you’re still at home. And you’re like, ‘This is not what I signed up for,’ ” laughs McIntosh.
Ahead of their return to Cannes — where they are representing rights to such films as the Casey Affleck-Laurence Fishburne vehicle Slingshot, a modern take on Hamlet starring Riz Ahmed and the Pakistani title Joyland — the execs talked to THR about the benefits of being in-house, Netflix’s buying power in the wake of recent subscriber woes and what the success of A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once could mean for the market.
How was the transition out of Endeavor Content and was there anything you wanted to change in terms of strategy when starting WME Independent?
Deborah McIntosh: A lot has changed since we became Endeavor Content and a lot changed at Endeavor Content. So we are in some major ways playing off of a fresh slate of how to be inside the agency again. We also have a very unique additional side of our business in that we are an international sales entity alongside a film packaging and domestic sales group. All the other agencies have that latter portion, but don’t have the former of the international sales company. We are capitalizing on that ability inside the agency, bringing several projects to the market where we’re handling global sales. We are definitely still willing and able to partner with the Film Nations and Protagonists and Rocket Sciences if we want to.
Alex Walton: If you are a production company and sales team together, there’s a natural clash. You shouldn’t always be just making films that we can sell. Now being a sales team associated with an agency, what our role really is is feeding distributors, trying to find things that we believe that there is a good audience out there for.
How important is it to keep worldwide rights available for potential streaming buyers?
McIntosh: Each film has a unique set of things that need to be addressed when it comes to raising the financing and deciding how to handle the sales. Yes, there are certain types of films where we all collectively lean in on the strategy being let’s leave as much of the world open as possible. But with Apple being the only real exception (that) really dislikes having territories taken off the table, it’s possible to pre-sell individual theatrical-driven international territories and still make a streamer deal domestically. We’ve been navigating that for a while, now. The pandemic set that up. For example, we always knew on The Lost Daughter if we pre-sold several territories, which we did, it would be something we’d navigate if we did sell to a streamer. And we did navigate that.
Are Netflix’s poor quarterly earnings report and subscriber woes something you are thinking about heading into the market?
Walton: Netflix has a huge market share in the streaming world, I think we always have to have that in mind. Netflix has been openly speaking about less is more for some time. They have positioned themselves that that is what they’re looking for generally, whether it’s acquisitions or pre-buying film, so I don’t think the recent news is going to affect that strategy. They certainly still have the ability to be very competitive.
How about Amazon and MGM? Do you have any indication if they will be buying independent of one another after the acquisition?
McIntosh: We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of traffic continue and already be in the flow with both Amazon and MGM on different fronts. Since the merger was cleared, they have been more transparent about speaking to each other about certain types of negotiations, but I think that’s going to remain a bit of a black box to us so they can remain in the best position for negotiating.
Walton: We’re in very close conversations with them as well, and it certainly seems that there’s a lot of real synergies between the two companies — Prime and the wonderful depth of the MGM library. The way that they handle different rights can actually bring real strength to the joint company.
As the industry continues to climb its way out of the pandemic, do you anticipate more interest from traditional theatrical distributors?
McIntosh: It’s amazing that A24 has had so much success already early in the year with a title that could have easily come and gone. But they worked their magic and have a hit on their hands with Everything Everywhere. That won’t be the only one this year that’s not a superhero movie or a franchise. We are trying to definitely sell more product like that into the marketplace through those types of distributors.
Walton: Not just domestically, but internationally as well, [theatrical distributors] have been really fluid throughout the pandemic and many are stronger than they were pre-pandemic because they can move so fast. Neon, domestically, is a good example of a company that bought a lot and could jump straight back into their historical premium VOD kind of model that Tom Quinn has long been a pioneer of. The last few markets we’ve seen a lot of acquisitions from standalone independents, domestically, which is nice to see again.
What does the success of a movie like Everything Everywhere All At Once signal to buyers?
McIntosh: In a lot of ways it shows that there are finished films available that we’ll be selling that are going to play well in person. Make the investment to bring audiences out, to see that type of product, because it will drive your business. It’s great to have a success story like that in this moment. I hope that there are more bullish distributors, which I think there certainly are, that still believe in that model. Whether you’re a hybrid opportunity, like Searchlight buying for Hulu and still able to do the theatrical first in a way that fits their studio model for the last 20 years, or Focus buying something for Peacock, we’re going to see a lot of really interesting models emerge this year. I hope they continue to buy things that fit into a newer paradigm for the industry so that people have stuff to go see. There’s plenty of chatter out of CinemaCon that there’s just not enough being put into theaters. I don’t disagree with that, as a consumer myself. I love going to see something as often as possible, and some weekends, there’s just nothing there.
Going into the market, are there any trends you have noticed in terms of the types of projects, whether it be genre or budget, that buyers are looking for?
Walton: I don’t see a trend. But home entertainment always evolves. The theatrical programmer with $20 million of P&A, those films are still being made, they’re just not being supported with $20 million of P&A. With the evolution of the window, it actually makes those films a little bit more possible. Certainly, those are the kind of films that home entertainment platforms or buyers, whether television stations or streaming platforms, are eager to have as part of their programming.
Given that the past two years have seen 11th-hour distribution changes for films, are filmmakers more active in voicing what they want to see in terms of a distributor?
In our experience, they’ve always been active. We’ve always done everything we can to marry their hopes and dreams for their movies with the marketplace and with our distribution options. Negotiating the deal for Passing, for example, in early January of 2021, [we were asking]: “What could the rest of 2021 look like in this pandemic world?” We had a tough choice to make between [a Netflix] partnership and a few theatrical players who really wanted to lean in there. It was important to Rebecca [Hall, the writer and director of the movie,] that she had some sort of life for the film in theaters alongside continuing to play festivals. We really were able to lean on Netflix to put that movie in different awards campaigns and in theaters. For Belfast, when Alex and team sold that to Focus, it was hugely important to [Kenneth Branagh] that that movie, globally, as much as possible had theatrical exposure. Focus was able to strike the right chord of a deal for that opportunity. Our goal here is to make everyone happy, especially with the auteurs at the center of these movies.
How do you want to see WME Independent grow?
Walton: Our ability to have close synergy within our own agency is obviously key. It’s like having a hundred producers sitting on the floor below you. Especially at our very early point of it now, we’re having to illustrate the ways that we can be added value to other pieces of the business. We’ve helped them with a number of music-based things, and a number of sports-based things. For example, we were recently involved with selling a big football documentary from a client of ours to FIFA.
McIntosh: What we wanna really focus on over the next 18 months is being the most dynamic version of a talent agency’s packaging and sales group out there. Our pipeline, which is evidenced by our slate at this year’s Cannes, is gonna be massively eclectic and diversified. We’re one of the only international sales operations not connected to a studio with its own financing. I think that gives us a real amount of leverage. It means we are going to continue to be eclectic in what we take on.