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The future of the independent movie business won’t be decided in the next five days, but the American Film Market, which opens its (virtual) doors on Monday and runs through Friday, could prove the stress test for competing models of indie film finance and distribution.
Shifts in the indie industry — from wide theatrical releases towards more online and multi-platform bows, from traditional pre-sales to international distributors towards global buyouts by streamers and studios — were turbocharged by the coronavirus pandemic, which battered traditional theatrical distribution, as cinemas shut down, and boosted streaming services worldwide.
“COVID accelerated an evolution that was already happening in our business,” notes James Andrew Felts, CEO of Motion Picture Exchange (MPX). “The streaming wars, the battle between streaming and theatrical, was inevitable. The big question now, going into AFM, is what the hell is going to happen to the business?”
MPX is betting on a future for theatrical. The L.A.-based production and sales group signed film slate deals with several international distributors ahead of AFM. Among them is a six-film deal for Australia and New Zealand with Pinnacle that includes horror-thriller Student Body, a three-film deal with Germany’s Lighthouse led by the James Eaves-directed thriller You Might Get Lost and an eight-film slate with Encripta for Latin America, which includes 1980s musical drama Electric Jesus featuring The Office alum Brian Baumgartner. A decade ago, this sort of lower-budget indie fare would likely have gone directly to Netflix, but, Felts notes, with global streamers spending billions on in-house originals, “they don’t really have a demand for a ton of independent content.”
If indie film wants to survive, he argues, it has to find a way to make theatrical work. “The challenge is to figure out how to monetize in this marketplace,” he explains. “I think there are really great distributors out there who are entrepreneurs, who are not going to sit back and let the pandemic or streamers put them out of business.”
For the big independent distributors worldwide — the likes of Constantin and Leonine in Germany, Vivendi’s StudioCanal in France, BF Distribution in South America or Toho in Japan — the challenge at this market will be securing one blockbuster package from the tiny group on offer. With streaming companies bankrolling the sort of projects that would have been big-ticket items at past AFMs, the likes of Shawn Levy’s time-travel-fi actioner The Adam Project with Ryan Reynolds and Zoe Saldana or Rian Johnson’s Knives Out 2 starring Daniel Craig (both Netflix originals), independent distributors “are seeing fewer and fewer commercial projects,” says Nadezda Motina of Russia’s Capella Film. “It’s become very hard for independents to put together big-budget projects. We’ll have fewer big titles to consider [at AFM] and my guess is, if everybody will try to get them, there will be bidding wars and many of those titles will go to a studio for worldwide.”
Among the few star-studded titles on offer with obvious commercial appeal are the AGC/ ICM Partners/UTA Independent project Freelance, an action-comedy from Taken director Pierre Morel, which has The Suicide Squad actor John Cena circling to star, Lionsgate’s fugitive pursuit thriller Paradise Highway with Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman, as well as Cornerstone’s Mafia Mamma, a mob comedy from Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke starring Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci.
“I don’t think any of us can say the classic pre-sales or indie model is dead,” says Cornerstone co-head Mark Gooder. “If you have a very clear commercial project where all the elements fit – concept, director, and talent – you’ll still get the market’s attention. But if the story is ultimately about proof of concept, about needing to see the film to prove it has value, well, that’s a lot trickier.”
Lower-budget, but still high-prestige titles, projects could be safer bets for many international buyers. Among them are the biopic Lee, starring Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, from Rocket Science, CAA and UTA about model-turned-war photographer Lee Miller, Vaclav Marhoul’s McCarthy from HanWay and CAA, featuring Michael Shannon as anti-communist demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver abortion drama Call Jane from Protagonist and UTA.
“Because the selection of broad commercial films will be limited, we’ll be looking at more arthouse movies or movies on the line between art and commercial,” says Capella Film’s Motina. “If you have the right marketing hook and the right fit for your territory, arthouse films can be box office.”
She points to Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar winner Another Round, a dramedy about serious day drinking. “I bought it as soon as I heard the pitch,” she says. “I knew a movie about drinking would work for Russia.” She was right: Another Round, released earlier this year, grossed nearly $1.5 million at the Russian box office.
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