A “Catastrophic” Sundance for the ‘Cat Person’ Movie

Emilia Jones and Nichols Braun in ‘Cat Person’ by director Susanna Fogel.
Emilia Jones and Nichols Braun in ‘Cat Person’ by director Susanna Fogel. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Matthew Belloni
February 13, 2023

Those breathless trade reports from film festivals can make it seem like everything’s a bidding war or a “hot package.” But the indie film market is brutal these days. Consider Cat Person, the comedic thriller based on the New Yorker story, starring CODA breakout Emilia Jones and Succession’s Nicholas Braun. After a splashy Sundance premiere, it’s been presented with some tough choices, according to an email from its sales rep that is circulating around town.

Agents Hildy Gottlieb and Brian Siberell of CAA, which represents Jones and screenwriter Michelle Ashford, sent an email this weekend to sales rep/financier Studiocanal and the co-sales group at UTA, cc-ing Agnes Chu of producer Conde Nast Entertainment and the talent reps, expressing “deep concern” about a Netflix offer for U.S. rights. The move would “certainly not be perceived to be talent-friendly,” and would “greatly diminish its chances to make its intended impact upon audiences, and will unnecessarily harm the reputation of a very fine film.” Talent wanting a theatrical release—that’s not unusual.    

But Studiocanal, which says it invested $12 million in Cat Person (another source close to the film says the budget was actually much less), quickly got real with CAA. “Our gap against the U.S. rights is $5 million, and given the catastrophic offers out of Sundance, we are potentially facing our biggest loss in 5 years,” fired back Anna Marsh, deputy C.E.O. of Canal+ Group, Studiocanal’s French parent. Marsh went on to explain that the Netflix offer, $1.75 million for U.S. streaming rights for three years (with the option to find a theatrical distributor elsewhere), is actually better than the offers from traditional distributors Open Road and Bleecker Street, which pledged a minimum guarantee of $1.5 million for a “20+ year license fee, opposing significant fees.” Not great. “To give you an idea, our $5 million U.S. gap would not be reimbursed until the film grosses at least $15 million at the U.S. box office,” Marsh added.

Could Cat Person get there? I saw it at Sundance and enjoyed it; director SusannaFogel leaned into creepy genre elements that, if marketed properly, could lure a young horror crowd to theaters. But the reviews weren’t great, and at an elevated cost and without bigger stars, it’s a big risk. Marsh even offered CAA, UTA and Condé Nast the opportunity to buy back rights. “If Studiocanal came out whole and our risk profile was improved, then I would be more willing to take the full blown theatrical risk.” That seems unlikely.