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Acclaimed Polish director and European Film Academy president Agnieszka Holland gave voice to a growing fear in the independent film world: that global streamers might kill theatrical cinema.
Speaking via video link at a Cannes Film Market panel on Thursday, Holland called the streaming platforms “a non-curated, big black hole where our more fragile and personal products can disappear and vanish.” Instead of having movies “curated only by algorithms,” Holland said independent filmmakers “need the real curators, the festivals, academies, critics. We need producers who will fight for a voice that is unique, rare, ambitious and challenging.”
But for many in the film world, including the indie producers and distributors that make up most of the Cannes market, streaming has been a lifeline, making financing possible for a range of movies that would otherwise be nearly impossible to get made.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cinemas worldwide and sent viewers scrambling to streamers, mid-budget independent films were finding it harder to secure theatrical releases and even harder to make money with them. But the rise in streaming — and increased competition for content with more online competitors, both broad and niche, in the international market — has changed the calculation.
“We have a whole slate of movies, smaller action thrillers, horror titles, that we’ve been able to make in the last 18 months because they don’t need to go theatrically, they can be released online only and still have value,” says Millennium Films president Jeffrey Greenstein. “Previously, you needed to go theatrical to give a movie value in the ancillary markets, but for those sorts of films, it was a loss leader. With these mid-sized action movies, our buyers couldn’t make the numbers work. Now they can.”
“As we’ve seen SVOD grow there has been an increasing need from the streamers for quality, broad entertainment movies, especially these star-driven action and thriller movies,” says JJ Caruth, president of domestic marketing and distribution at The Avenue, the all-platform distribution arm Highland Film Group launched last year. The Avenue’s first release was a day-and-date bow of indie martial arts sci-fi film Jiu Jitsu, starring Nicolas Cage and Tony Jaa.
At the virtual Cannes market that preceeded the festival, Netflix struck a multi-million-dollar deal to take world rights on Curs>r, a horror film about a cursed computer game, which stars Asa Butterfield (Sex Education), Eddie Marsan (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw), Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and newcomer Iola Evans (The 100). Anton handled sales on the film with Endeavor Content co-repping domestic rights.
In the specialty space, targeted SVOD players, like arthouse platform Mubi or AMC Networks’ horror specialist streaming service Shudder, have been actively buying up just the sort of indie film curated by festivals in Cannes and elsewhere.
Ahead of the 74th Cannes Film Festival, Mubi picked up all rights in the U.K. and Ireland for both Leos Carax’s opening night film Annette and Mia Hansen-Løve’s competition title Bergman Island. Mubi plans to release both in theaters as well, but the company’s main audience is its online subscriber base.
Shudder recently acquired Filip Jan Rymsza’s psycho-thriller Mosquito State, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, for release in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
“We’ve found that we can get the same awareness, the same press, and marketing attention by doing an online release, without theatrical,” says Shudder’s global acquisitions and co-production director Emily Gotto. “Especially if we are dealing with genre titles, we can put it out on our service and also go through our output partnerships to put it onto physical hard goods — DVD, Blu-Ray, in some cases even specialty VHS, while also making the film available on download to own, on Apple, on iTunes, on Amazon Prime. It’s the opportunity for the film to be seen and for the filmmaker to be seen.”
The group is also financing its own genre titles, including V/H/S/94, a fourth installment of the V/H/S found-footage horror shorts collection, the first three of which were released in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively.
“We tailor the approach for each film, so if we feel it’s very important for a film to be in theaters, we’ll go that route when theaters come back,” says Craig Engler, general manager of Shudder. “But what we have found is that as Shudder has grown in size and stature — last year we passed a million subscribers, and we have well more than that now — we can bring the necessary awareness to the films on our own.”
Like Mubi, Shudder is a curated platform, something Engler says is essential to avoid lesser-known films from disappearing down the “big black hole” Holland warned of.
“People can’t find films [on non-curated platforms],” Engler says. “It’s a common complaint we see: that nobody can find anything. So we’re very big on doing themed programming. So we might do Werewolf Month. You might have heard of The Howling, say, so we’ll use The Howling as a way to get you to check out Ginger Snaps and other great werewolf films you might never think to search out.”
The independent film world has also discovered the new gold mine that is advertising-supported video on demand (AVOD). In June, Cannes stalwart Wild Bunch launched its own online platform, an AVOD channel called Wild Side TV, which will offer up titles from Wild Bunch’s deep catalog of indie movies, including Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, James Marsh’s Shadow Dance, and 7 Psychopaths from director Martin McDonagh.
“We believe the world of distribution is going to change more and change much more quickly. The experience in the U.S. has been very striking,” says Wild Bunch CEO Vincent Grimond, noting that day-and-date or all platform releases, currently the exception in Europe, will become commonplace. If independent film companies are to survive, he argues, they need to tap into online revenues.
Grimond also worries that if European firms don’t launch their own platforms, the industry runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the U.S. giants in their home markets, something that is already happening in many territories. “We believe in having services generated out of Europe,” says Grimond. “We want to avoid having just the big American companies running the show.”
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