Angel Studios Lights Up the Marché du Film in Cannes

By J. Sperling Reich | May 22, 2024 3:19 pm PDT
Jared Geesey - Chief Distribution Officer, Angel Studios at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

It is often remarkably easy to measure one’s artistic and/or professional success at the Cannes Film Festival. It is, after all, the event in which standing ovations after a movie’s premiere are measured by the minute in rapturous news reports. Conversely, Cannes is also where a new film can be showered with boos as the credits roll.

A similar phenomena occurs at the Marché du Film, or Cannes Film Market, which takes place alongside the festival each year and is where film buyers, sales agents producers, distributors other industry professionals gather to cut deals for movie projects in all stages of development or completion. Where a distributor or sales agent chooses to set up offices during the market can sometimes telegraph its current prosperity. One could surmise that is the case for Angel Studios, the Utah based media and film distribution company.

Rather than take a booth at the market’s main venue, the Palais des Festivals, Angel is holding meetings in a suite on the eleventh floor of the Mondrian Hotel, a two minute walk down the Croisette in the French Riviera town. Dozens of other companies are also operating from the Mondrian during the market, though Angel has a penthouse view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. From the balcony Jared Geesey, Chief Distribution Officer of Angel Studios, can see the many beachside bars and restaurants where his ad-hoc meetings were scheduled during last year’s market, as it was just entering theatrical distribution.

That was before the company released “Sound of Freedom,” a thriller about child-trafficking which went on to earn USD $250 million worldwide starting last July. Since then, Angel has gone on to release theatrical titles such as “The Shift” and “Cabrini.” Yet, the company’s recent good fortune is not why Geesey and his team is camped out at the top of the Mondrian. It turns out the suite was simply what the Mondrian had available when they arrived. To paraphrase a clichéd saying, never judge a distributor by its Cannes market suite.

At the outset of this year’s market, Geesey sat down with Celluloid Junkie to discuss everything from Angel Studios’ approach to theatrical distribution to crowdfunding to the company’s values-based storytelling. While most distributors are in Cannes to either sell or buy film titles, Angel is taking a slightly different tactic. “We’re here at the market to connect with partners and people we’ve known and have worked with, and also to build new relationships,” said Geesey. “I’m primarily looking for distributors who understand the Angel model, how our content is selected by the crowd and our unique way of, of marketing, engaging with an audience and who are interested in presenting the slate of films rather than just a one off market approach.”

Traditionally, distributors acquire specific film titles on a case-by-case basis, rather than in bulk through what could be described as the theatrical version of a premium cable output deal. Geesey is looking for distributors in specific regions around the world to enter into partnerships wherein they would distribute all Angel releases in their territory.

What he’s not looking to do is leave Cannes having purchased the rights to any new films. “Because of the unique way we pick content up we don’t screen films at festivals. That’s not our greenlight process,” Geesey said. “You’re never going to see a headline from Angel that we acquired some film at a festival. Because it has to go to the Angel Guild. And the Angel Guild is the way we pick content. So I might see a film but then I would have to convince the filmmaker to submit it to the Guild as the next step.”

The Angel Guild that Geesey is referencing, is a community of subscribers that votes on and helps crowdfund projects for Angel Studios. Members pay a USD $20 monthly fee to access to participate with benefits that include free tickets to Angel releases, early streaming access, and most importantly, the ability vote on proofs of concept for new projects and provide feedback.

The Guild votes are known as “torches,” a name dervied from the how sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi funded the Statue of Liberty in 1880 by first building its torch to inspire the citizens of France to donate all the funds for its completion. Torches given by the Guild determine which projects get greenlit, or “guildlit,” for production and distribution by Angel Studios, making its members the drivers of the company’s content selection process. The Angel Guild currently has 300,000 members in 155 countries and Geesey says the goal is to grow to a million before the end of 2024.

Guild members vote through on projects through a mobile phone app and are asked two questions; (1) Does this project amplify light and (2) How would you feel if this never became an Angel Studios movie? Based on member responses each project receives a “passion” score, with those receiving the highest scores in contention for becoming Angel projects.

So, though Geesey could attend market or festival screenings in Cannes, and are open to discovering projects in that way, it really wouldn’t matter if he fell in love with a specific movie since, “The best way to get Angel excited about a film is to get the guild excited about it. When we see that they’re excited and the scoring and feedback is through the roof then that’s what gets us pumped about a title.”

As is alluded to in the torch question, the company’s mission statement is to tell stories that amplify light, which Geesey says means, in part, values-based filmmaking, “with “messages of goodness, beauty, truth, and positive relationships.” Because of this, as well as some, though not all, of its previous theatrical releases, Angel knows the company has been branded as a faith based distributor. Though they don’t mind the label, Angel believes many inspiring stories of faith can resonate with audiences of any or no faith background due to the positive impacts of the characters. In short, Angel is open to both faith-affirming and other types of stories, so long as they align with their overall mission.

Angel’s communal approach extends to how it funds some of the projects Guild members select, especially when it comes to the budget for prints and advertising (P&A). To date, 104,000 Guild members have invested USD $80 million in Angel projects, though such investments are in no way limited to Guild membership. Investors in the “Sound of Freedom” P&A crowdfunding initiative received a 120% return within 60 days, which is truly an outlier.

In turn, the investors and Guild members end up helping market each release via word-of-mouth. “If somebody invests USD $25 or even USD $1,000, they’re going to be buying theatrical tickets, they’re going to be spreading the word,” explained Geesey, And and that’s, that’s what matters, are they going to show up and spread the word and create a viral hit out of it? It’s just really about looking at all the ways you can build a community around each one of the projects. As we do that, it’s really building an Angel Studios community, where every project they know what to expect, they know that this is a story that is for them.”

One of the final pieces that help Angel market and drive audiences to its releases is a unique Pay-It-Forward model in which moviegoers can purchase tickets for someone else to see a particular title. This is what helped propel the success of “Sound of Freedom” and, in fact, Angel required exhibitors booking the film domestically to integrate with their Pay-It-Forward system. They have integrated with 31 point-of-sale systems so far, including with web ticketing services such as Fandango and Atom Tickets. “In the US we’re the first distributor to sell tickets directly to consumers all the way through picking your your seat and checkout,” said Geesey. When buying a ticket through the Angel Studios website, a patron has the option of paying it forward, purchasing a ticket for a specific showtime or claiming a free ticket.

Geesey feels the entire Angel ecosystem helps the company optimize its marketing strategy and budget for each release. “We’re bringing a very kind of e-commerce, direct response advertising type of approach to the way we do theatrical ticketing in the US,” he stated. “Instead of a scattershot P&A spend, we really go after who our customers are. We know where they are and we love ads that sell a ticket. This is normal business in e-commerce where you know what your return on ad spend is down to the penny. It’s just kind of wild to me that it hasn’t hit the theatrical space yet.” The Pay-It-Forward model has proven so successful that integrating their system internationally is now one of his priorities.

Geesey also reports that, once all costs are recouped, Angel splits the profits with the filmmakers and creatives behind its projects without taking money of the top in distribution fees. “If I’m not making profit until those costs are recouped, then I’m incentivized to spend efficiently and to be effective,” he said. “That’s the engine for a lot of the innovation that we do with our P&A.”

Angel hopes it is pioneering a model and ecosystem that will help attract filmmakers to bring their projects to its Guild for review, which is one of the reason’s they are attending Cannes. “We want the world’s best storytellers to bring their stories to the Guild,” Geesey said. “I think we’ve got a pretty compelling, unique model for how we market but on the filmmaker side, we don’t charge distribution fees. We split profits. We want to be good partners with our filmmakers. Alignment is one of those things where, if I can make money while you don’t, then we’re not aligned. So being aligned with our filmmakers in ways that sat when we win, you will win too. It means we’re on the same side.”

Whether Angel ever shows up in Cannes with a title appearing as an official selection of the festival isn’t really the company’s priority right now. Angel would only premiere a film at a festival if it made sense for marketing purposes. “If you want to premiere it here, obviously this is a place to make a splash,” Geesey agreed. “We’re not afraid of promoting and premiering our films anywhere in the world that wants to have us. But I’m also recognizing that the way we play the game is different. Our model, and what we’re trying to do with the Guild, is the opposite of the elitism of the gatekeeper model. A lot of the red carpet approach are much more the approach of the elite. We’re in Cannes to be on the market side and to communicate and connect with whoever is open to it. We’ve got amazing content that we know people want to watch. And whether that is on a red carpet or not, that’s kind of secondary.”

J. Sperling Reich