AFM Preview: How New Players Are Rewriting the Rules of Indie Dealmaking

Rob Friedman and Megan Ellison_Split - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

Silicon Valley and the emergence of fresh disruptors have ushered in an era that looks very different than it did just a year ago: "Indie companies aren't dictating the future of the film business."

Forget Harvey Weinstein.

The fate of the disgraced movie mogul, and that of The Weinstein Co., will be a subject of cocktail chatter at this year's American Film Market, which kicks off Wednesday, but Weinstein is a sideshow compared to true forces of disruption rocking AFM: The independent film business is rapidly evolving, and business models that had worked for decades are being torn apart and tossed aside.

The rise of online platforms Netflix and Amazon has brought a flood of cash into the indie biz — Netflix alone says they will produce or acquire 80 original films next year, double their 2016 output — while short-circuiting traditional distribution models. Buyers used to trolling the Loews for the next big indie tentpole are finding themselves outgunned by these deep-pocketed Silicon Valley giants who swoop down and buy up world rights for any project with mainstream potential.

"If a project gets big enough or gets any buzz behind it, it gets snatched up by the platforms or by the studios," complains one veteran international buyer, commenting on the dearth of big projects at AFM this year. It’s notable that the one big package on offer this year — Bloom’s The Frontrunner, a Jason Reitman film starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons — has limited international appeal, given that the story has Jackman playing disgraced 1980s American politician Gary Hart.

"Talking to sales agents, the projects on offer are all in the $5 million-$7 million range — there’s nothing in the $20 million-plus range, nothing mainstream," says Alexander van Duelmen of Germany’s A Company.

Thorsten Schumacher of Rocket Science — which closed one of this year’s biggest indie deals, selling animated feature Bubbles, about Michael Jackson’s beloved chimp, to Netflix for a reported $20 million in Cannes — says the online giants have brought “a welcome injection of capital, but also a welcome injection of innovation” into the indie business, while admitting that the shift has been “disruptive and painful” for many old-school distributors. “They are going to have to change their models,” he says.

The few big players left in the indie world — Lionsgate, Annapurna, STX Entertainment — are moving quickly to set up new models, combining production and financing muscle with international distribution to create 21st century versions of the mini-majors. Annapurna, whose upcoming slate includes Richard Linklater’s dramedy Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk, this week announced a U.S. joint distribution venture with MGM, adding another component to Annapurna’s global battle plan. Megan Ellison’s outfit already has international distribution deals in place for much of the world, following a pattern set by similar production/sales outfits STX and Lionsgate. Lionsgate itself is in the midst of a transition, after swallowing Joe Drake’s Good Universe in a deal that will see Drake return to the company as, for the moment, co-chair of its Motion Picture Group alongside current boss Patrick Wachsberger.

And all AFM eyes are on former Lionsgate exec Rob Friedman and his newly formed “content studio” Global Road Entertainment, which brings together U.S. distributor Open Road Films with production and sales outfit IM Global.

“There are a lot of new companies and new models emerging,” says Hal Vogel, author of Entertainment Industry Economics and a veteran observer of the indie film business. "But this isn’t 10 years ago, when losing The Weinstein Co. would have been a big blow to the industry. Today, the indie companies aren’t the ones dictating the future of the  film business. Silicon Valley is. Where they go, the business will follow."