AFM: Streaming Wars Loom Large as Market Gets Underway

'Breaking News in Yuba County' Still — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of AFM

This year's AFM, which runs Nov. 6-13, is sandwiched between the launch of two potentially game-changing global streaming services.

In the independent film industry, the words "paradigm shift" have been bandied around for a while, but the 2019 American Film Market could mark a true tipping point.

This year's AFM, which runs Nov. 6-13, is sandwiched between the launch of two potentially game-changing new global streaming services: Apple TV+, which bowed Nov. 1, and Disney+, which will go out in select territories Nov. 12. Following closely on their heels will be WarnerMedia's HBO Max and NBCUniversal's Peacock. 

Streaming is the single greatest threat, and potentially the single greatest opportunity, the indie industry has seen in decades. By gobbling up — and producing — indie movies at an unprecedented rate, Netflix and Amazon have pumped cash into the business while simultaneously eroding the traditional models for financing and distributing movies outside the studio system. 

"Distribution for horror movies, even for action films, hasn't changed that dramatically, but for people making traditional dramatic or comedic feature films, the ability to secure distribution is really challenged," said Fred Bernstein of production group Astute Films, which has two films at AFM — the best-agers comedy Never Too Late with Ellen Burstyn and James Caan, which Paradigm is selling, and the Billy Crystal-Tiffany Haddish starrer Here Today, from Rocket Science and CAA. "The majors appear to be less interested in that marketplace, and exhibitors appear less interested in those movies."

"You used to be able to predict how much an individual film was worth on the international marketplace," noted David Garrett of British-based Mister Smith Entertainment, whose AFM lineup includes The Banker, starring Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicholas Hoult. "Now a film could be theatrical or it could go to a streamer, which also has value, but it's much harder to know beforehand what the base price for a movie will be. That makes financing a lot more complicated."

A wave of consolidation preceded AFM, with toymaker Hasbro picking up Canadian mini-major Entertainment One in a $4 billion deal this summer — a deal that still has to secure final regulatory approval — and, on the eve of the market, Mark Damon's Foresight Unlimited got scooped up by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment's new distribution arm, Screen Media. Internationally, two of Germany's biggest indie distributors — Universum and Tele-Munchen Group —were bought by private equity company KKR and folded into new group Leonine. Expect more mergers to follow as the industry struggles to sort out new models for getting movies made — and actually making money off of them. 

"This is all happening in real time," Sierra Affinity exec Jonathan Kier said about the market disruption wrought by the streaming wars. "What I'm really interested in is if there is going to be a difference between the studio-owned streamers — HBO Max, Peacock and Disney+ — and the independent streamers: Apple, Amazon and Netflix. Are we going to see the independent streamers cooperate with independent distributors and a new studio versus independent model emerge?"

"A lot of things have to change. Overseas producers have to get a lot more involved in co-producing and development and become much less reliant on a U.S. theatrical release," said Stuart Ford. His AGC Studios will be screening footage of Tate Taylor's crime thriller Breaking News in Yuba County, starring Mila Kunis and Awkwafina, and Neil Burger's sci-fi Voyagers at AFM, and it has the Taylor Kitsch-starrer Inferno on its new market slate. 

"People are shifting and adapting, but they need to be doing it an awful lot more — and more aggressively. Or the scale and the relevance of the independent industry, and of the AFM, will be history."

A version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 6 daily issue at the American Film Market.