Two virtual markets will run side by side next week, marking an unprecedented moment within the film industry. In efforts to reunite global sales forces and together inject a much needed burst of energy into the industry’s current state of play, the Cannes Marche and the new independent agency-led virtual market will begin their events Monday June 22, with the Cannes event ending on Saturday June 27 and the latter on Sunday June 28. When speaking to a number of distributors and sales agents, it seems it’s full speed ahead in terms of lining up meetings and screenings. Almost as if it’s business as usual.
The film sales business has collectively agreed that this is a time to drive business forward, despite the obvious setbacks of online meetings versus face-to-face communication, hybrid festivals derailing the enthusiasm of live premieres, and, depending on the territory, the uncertainty of when cinemas will re-open and productions will resume. As Brian Beckman, Chief Financial Officer of Arclight Films, told me, “It’s a time to think creatively and focus on solutions rather than problems. And this line of thinking is what appears to be keeping the industry afloat at the moment.”
So the question is: what is the new normal? How are sales agents, distributors and filmmakers aligning themselves to work together and procure sales at a time when unpredictabilities abound?
Anyone will tell you a virtual market comes with its challenges: the hassle of downloading a myriad of communication apps (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WeChat, What’s App, WebEx, Skype, to name a few), unreliable WiFi that can abruptly end a meeting, or simply the inability for sales agents to gauge the reaction of buyers when viewing promos online. Yet, the two virtual markets are giving it their all to provide a bona fide space to showcase projects.
While the independent agency-led market, whose website is called See You Tomorrow/A Demain, will focus on the presentation of more high profile, packaged features available predominantly for pre-sales from over 30 participating sales agents, the Marche will focus on its usual wide array of international projects that are at various stages of readiness and levels of budget. The Marche will also offer live screenings throughout its six day-run, though many sales agents are sending screening links ahead of the market.
When asked which market sales agents and buyers will be attending, many said both, while the more indie-focused labels are primarily focused on the Marche, particularly if sellers don’t have titles involved with one of the organizing agencies of the independent market (CAA Media Finance, Endeavor Content, ICM Partners and UTA Independent Film Group). However, UTA’s Independent Film Group co-head Rena Ronson says the virtual market’s main focus is unity, and not exclusion. “The idea is to recreate event presentations that sellers offer when they fly talent in to present their projects to multiple buyers in one setting. It’s an opportunity for filmmakers and talent to come together virtually and present in an alternative way.” Some of the projects on offer will include Dogwoof’s The Story of Film: The New Generation from UK documentary filmmaker Mark Cousins, The Exchange’s Cosmic Sin starring Bruce Willis and Highland Film Group’s The Reckoning from director Neil Marshall.
New York-based sales company Visit Films, known for its array of strong festival titles including Alice — last year’s recipient of SXSW’s Grand Jury Award, Narrative Feature – will be focusing sales energies on the Marche, though Visit Films’ president Ryan Kampe notes the company will continue sales as they have over the past few months, focusing on flexibility with distributors. “With some territories like Australia, New Zealand, or parts of Europe, theaters are opening back up and they have a need for new content. But for other places, that is not the case, and some of those distributors have paused acquisitions. It depends on the country, and how they are handling the situation.” Normally, Visit Films would be bringing several new projects to the Marche. This year, they are taking a more reserved approach and waiting to see what will happen in the fall with festivals (with Toronto and New York leaning towards a combination of live and virtual screenings and events). “There are a lot of festival titles that haven’t sold yet,” he says, referring to titles out of Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca. “It is much better [for sales purposes] if films can play in front of a live audience.” Kampe added that market titles that premiere months down the line don’t relinquish their exclusivity, yet he is also aware certain titles have a sense of urgency regarding their financial recoupment.
The recently concluded Sheffield Doc/Fest MeetMarket provides a useful early comparison point. Patrick Hurley, the event’s director, marketplace and talent, reports to Filmmaker that its first virtual edition the MeetMarket was, by and large, not vastly different to its previous live version. The industry event hosted over 1,000 meetings for feature documentaries and around 500 meetings in the Alternate Realities Talent Market for non-fiction new-media creatives. Participants convened in a virtual lobby in between meetings before being ushered into private break-out rooms for their discussions. Hurley said the virtual lobby, when busy with the most participants’s time-zones overlapping, was somewhat reminiscent of a physical marketplace — seeing everyone come together in the same “room” and filmmakers and industry representatives from around the world saying hello to each other in passing. Many participants also commented that the meetings in the break-out rooms felt more focused, given the absence of peripheral distractions and noise.
Altering sales models
Despite the halt of production and live film festivals, business for many has been brisk, says Tiffany Boyle, Ramo Law’s president of packaging and sales. In particular, she references completed films or films that are in post production —- a sentiment she feels will carry over into the markets. “Buyers need completed films right now, as they don’t know when films will be going into production again,” Boyle explains.
Arclight’s Beckman agrees, adding that his company will place their sales focus towards a range of completed productions and acquisitions they were fortunate to have ready before lockdown measures came into play. He continues that the pre-sale market is not as robust right now, unless you have notable A-list talent. He also observes that while worldwide deals are still being made (mostly from studios and streamers), they are not as prevalent as they were before the onset of the novel coronavirus, with segmented territory deals, such as all of Asia or Europe, more commonplace at the moment.
With competition fierce for the completed features, particularly with SVOD and AVOD players, Arclight has been utilizing a longer-lead approach, announcing their new sales titles each week to buyers in the weeks running up to the market rather than waiting to announce on the market’s first day. Their slate ranges from fantasy adventure The King’s Daughter with Pierce Brosnan and narration by Julie Andrews to light-hearted comedy Butter starring Mira Sorvino and Alex Kersting.
Other agencies admit sales are slow-going in the current climate. Sales, production and distribution outfit Submarine Entertainment say they have closed deals, but the process feels like it is re-inventing itself on a constant basis and is very unpredictable. UK-based Dogwoof also alludes to a “go with the flow” way of working, particularly as many all-rights distributors are holding off on buying content due to a backlog in delayed releases now scheduled for the fall or start of next year. The sales, production and distribution company mentions how much harder the sales team has had to work to bring attention to films that were supposed to screen live at festivals such as Tribeca, Hot Docs and SXSW. One reference the company’s head of sales, Ana Vicente, proudly mentions is their recent North American deal with Magnolia Pictures for the Istanbul-set canine doc Stray, helped along by strong trade reviews (a feat that is currently not easy with editorial cutbacks, or with many reviewers themselves backlogged with work).
BondIt Media Capitol’s Matthew Helderman gives further adage to the importance of securing a US deal right now, particularly as many international territories are on the fence about acquiring content. The founder and CEO of the Santa Monica-based financing and producing entity, whose upcoming projects include Bruce Willis sci-fi action flick Cosmic Sin and horror film With Teeth starring Kara Hayward and Jack Donnelly, says he is also noticing North American buyers placing their attention on putting packages together that are ready for production when business fully opens up, such as FilmNation’s hotly anticipated Will Smith and Antoine Fuqua runaway slave thriller Emancipation. He also said to look out for an uptick in North American buyers continuing to take global rights — again, in reference to a slower market on the international side.
Seth Needle, Screen Media’s SVP of worldwide acquisitions, observes he has seen theatrical distributors start to buy more VOD-driven films as “digital plays” knowing they have to make money somehow while their bread and butter of theatrical releases is non-existent. As a result, the independent distributor has turned towards the packaging market to fill their future slate with no fewer than ten projects at various stages of development or pre-production. These include Wally’s Wonderland starring Nicolas Cage with Foresight Unlimited on board as sales agent, and The Breach starring Bruce Willis, Thomas Jane and Rachel Nichols that Film Mode Entertainment are selling.
Beckman iterates that sentiment, saying he has been hearing from distributors across the globe that it’s a good time for independent filmmakers to shoot that sub $2 million film and get to the market faster, as opposed to the typical incubation period of 12 to 18 months. “Those that can be creative and faster will have a competitive edge,” Beckman adds.
Boyle dittos that it’s a great time to produce independent films since they’re harder to make right now, resulting in a higher than typical demand. “Once everyone starts making movies when things re-open, it will start to become flush again, and we’ll likely have a few too many movies for a period of time until it balances out. I think what will be interesting is when/if there is another lockdown, how filmmakers try and pop in and out of production until everything stabilizes.”
Streaming and Pay TV
A more digital-focused future — a trend underway before the current pandemic — is being accelerated. Clay Epstein, president of Film Mode Entertainment says that much of his company’s sales attention is being targeted towards digital aggregators and TV buyers, and that won’t change any time soon.
Needle highlights that Screen Media’s alternative release strategy during this period has been the forgoing of any theatrical release and the reallocation of a film’s P&A spend almost entirely into VOD marketing and advertising. They have also explored premiering some of their films on the VOD platform Crackle, a sister company to Screen Media that is part owned by Sony Pictures, as “Crackle Originals,” forgoing the TVOD (transactional video-on-demand) window entirely. Though he points out — given the heightened performance on TVOD during this period — that hasn’t always made the most financial sense.
Kampe of Visit Films also says they have put their “aggressive sales energy” into taking more meetings or pitches on the television and VOD side. He also says that higher-profile films that the studios would have released in more traditional ways seem to now be picked up by the streamers. The open slots, so to speak, are now not as readily available for the lower-budgeted independents.
However, Giant Pictures’ director of content distribution Nick Savva says the digital distribution sphere is not limited to the major players. Working with over 100 platforms, his label has been 30% – 50% busier since the onset of the coronavirus in sorting distribution for independent titles, such as their work for Ellen Page’s Netflix doc There’s Something in the Water, where they are securing TVOD, EST and DVD rights. “We usually work with around 10-20 platforms per title over a two-to-three-year period,” explains Savva. While the majority of money earned is in the form of revenue shares, often with no money returned to the rights holder until several years following its release, Savva notes that this type of finance model is becoming more commonplace at the markets and will most certainly be noticeable at this year’s markets.
“Previously, if you would show up at Cannes without the ability to write a check for an advance or a license fee, no one would want to deal with you. But that is changing,” Savva adds. “People are realizing streaming is where the audience is. And they will engage more with these revenue share arrangements.” He also highlights the optimization for independent films that may not make a sale with an all rights distributor or a streamer such as Netflix but will be visible across different digital platforms for a number of years.
Tightening Windows and Eliminating Gatekeepers
Studios such as Universal has made waves with their experimenting of simultaneous theatrical and PVOD releases. When cinemas were closed, Trolls World Tour was released solely on digital platforms such as Apple TV for $19.99 per rental, making the studio $95 million in fees from nearly five million customers over three weeks (more money than the first edition of Trolls earned in its initial five months in theaters). Now playing in what theaters are open, it continues to successfully sell seats, earning a cumulative $3.6 million in its tenth week at the US box office. While the studio says PVOD (premium video-on-demand) platforms will not replace theatrical (the studio has six films in the box office’s top ten as of June 15), shortened windows is clearly something that distributors and exhibitors are fervently exploring, and will no doubt be a conversation at the markets.
In an online film industry conversation titled “What Does the Film Industry Look Like in a Pandemic” run by Cinetic Media, its founder and sales veteran John Sloss said the current situation will result in less gatekeepers in terms of how content is delivered. He referenced Louis CK’s recent special Sincerely Louis CK that the comedian self-made and placed across his own channels for $7.99.
Notable indie exhibitor Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse chain, argues in the panel conversation that collapsed windows are not necessarily a negative thing, citing a possible compromise between distributors and exhibitors suggested by former Paramount Pictures’ worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan whereby when a per-screen average reaches a certain point (in the vicinity of $2,000 a week), the home entertainment window would follow weeks after. Sloss added that a more fluid approach to marketing from theatrical into home entertainment could also then be applied.
Kino Lorber’s chairman and CEO Richard Lorber, who has found success with his company’s virtual cinema initiative Kino Marquee, adds that “the dominance of the old guard gatekeepers such as studios and theater chains is dissolving in the acid bath of this pandemic.” He says that direct engagement with audiences through virtual theatrical releases, more assertive curation by arthouse and independent theaters and innovative approaches by distributors is allowing new types of content to find wider acceptance.
Visit Films has developed a form of virtual releasing for their titles that are part of the company’s distribution label, Monument Releasing. Working on their third release during the lockdown period, Kampe says they, like other independent distributors, are partnering with theaters such as Chicago’s Music Box. For the company’s film Alice, released several weeks ago, the theater had virtual theatrical exclusivity in Chicago for a week. The film was further released through another theater in Chicago the second week. Marketing and the reach-out to clients and audiences is handled by the cinema. Proceeds are split between Monument Releasing and the theater. “There is this idea of exclusive partnership and regional booking in a virtual setting,” explains Kampe. “And then you move to the traditional windows, so TVOD — iTunes, Amazon, Google — and after cable, on demand.”
Lorber is hoping there will be a lasting place in the market for Kino Marquee. He explains they are now developing a “duplex” model for staggered or simultaneous physical and virtual releases. “Unfortunately we think it will be a long hard road back to ‘normalcy’ for theaters and they will welcome the supplemental income from digital ticket sales for the foreseeable future.” He adds that thankfully some theaters have forged past the thinking of “the digital cannibalization of their live theatergoers” and have instead increased effective engagement with their bases and audience constituencies, whether for digital tickets or live in-theater attendance and special events. This, he says, will cement the bond between audience and theater, and become a strong foundation for the survival of cinema in all its forms.
New formats/ Shuffling content
Aside from the usual VOD fan-fare — including genre, sci-fi, and cast-driven product — other forms of content have seen surprising increases in demand. While library titles are generally successful across VOD platforms, Boyle gives the example of a library title that was sold to territories during the lockdown and in one month made €12,000 euros in Italy, a figure that would normally sit around €1-2k euros a month. Savva also says library titles are receiving jaw-dropping viewing numbers, with nostalgia television such as Roseanne or Baywatch proving big hits.
Boyle adds that dramas and anything considered depressing is a harder sell right now. “People want more escapism — think Joe Exotic [Tiger King]. I’m also seeing an uptick in comedies selling better than before. And thrillers and horror are still doing fine.” She mentions that for financiers looking to keep production costs down, there is more interest in animation as “it can be made anywhere if you have the space” and documentaries “as they are typically cheaper and have less crew”.
Submarine’s Dan and Josh Braun echo those thoughts, saying they are seeing more demand for great documentaries that are big and obviously broadly appealing. On a slightly more niche side, they are also seeing a growing willingness for buyers to consider some docs that need care and feeding in terms of marketing — provided a film has a clearly identifiable core audience. The brothers are selling SXSW feature doc winner An Elephant in the Room, with producer Benn Wiebe aware that its challenging topic that centers around grieving children is not necessarily quarantine-viewing material, but he is also hopeful that streaming outlets will be responsive to moving content. Doc projects that gained attention at the recent Sheffield Doc/Fest MeetMarket are also on the more niche side, exploring the macro issue of climate change through a micro focus on localized subjects in India: Sarvnik Kaur’s Against the Tide, Shaunak Sen’s Airborne and Anupama Srinivasan and Anirban Dutta’s On the Edge.
Along those lines, some agents and buyers are seeing more “off-piste” content get considered or bought, because content is greatly needed or simply because some buyers are throwing caution to the wind and giving the less obvious material a chance. Some buyers are noting this with certain sales agents’ line-ups as well, who are taking on smaller or less “on-brand” films since they can keep marketing costs down in the virtual markets and there is less risk to try selling a different type of title.
Beckman says he has seen an increase in expenditure on “the right product,” but overall, he doesn’t think streamers will pay an exorbitant amount of money for content right now. He also has seen projects that might otherwise not have received much attention, now receive attention because, once again, the shortage of content. “I don’t think we will see surprise deals — like a film made for $2 million get sold for $9 million. But yes, we are seeing films where it was a pass before, and now they are reconsidering. I’m hoping to have more deals like that.”
Epstein of Film Mode Entertainment reminds that despite the “dream” that there is a higher demand for films regardless of execution or cast, the market remains selective and with strict parameters. Needle puts added weight behind this, saying that a common misconception is “just because you have content, the market should, and will be, robust for it.” While there are indeed more eyeballs in the digital sector right now, Needle says, consumers are still drawn to the areas that have always interested the VOD viewers. For Screen Media, that is typically cast- and genre-driven movies. Over the lockdown period, they released Robert the Bruce and Blood and Monday, both of which doubled their high-case forecast that was modelled over a 24-month period in their first two weeks of release.
For Film Mode Entertainment’s films Rev and Dreamkatcher, both of which were released during the quarantine and aimed at the VOD marketplace, Epstein adds they were able to close a few additional territories that would typically be for the more theatrically driven markets because they are well produced, completed and deliverable films.