IFTA President Jean Prewitt on AFM, Netflix and Gender Disparity (Q&A)

Jean Prewitt - H 2015
Scott Witter

The AFM host on Netflix wanting to be at the market this year and how a promising U.S.-China film deal stalled.

Jean Prewitt has been running the Independent Film & Television Alliance for 15 years, shepherding the film and TV trade association into a global organization that serves as an adviser to and advocate for the indie community. Representing more than 150 member companies from 23 countries, IFTA also hosts the annual American Film Market, which brings nearly 400 companies to Santa Monica for eight days of wheeling and dealing.

"I’m always excited by the market because of the overall energy," says Prewitt, 67. "It’s an entire building of entrepreneurs and risk takers. I really love watching them do what they’re good at, which is spinning out these stories and seeing who bites."

The Hawaii-raised Prewitt, who, along with her entire IFTA team moves from their Westwood office into the Lowes Santa Monica for the market (running Nov. 4-11), spoke to THR about this year’s AFM, issues facing independents around the world and how Netflix is changing markets.

What are you looking forward to this year?

We’re seeing a continuation of a trend with more and more representation of Asia. Not only is Hong Kong taking a big position in the market, so are groups from Mainland China. You’re really seeing that whole area of the world come in as buyers and as sellers. And our conference program will explore a lot of issues, particularly how the Netflixes of the world and buying patterns are going to change the way we go into the marketplace to acquire product or to sell it.

The markets have been described as slower than they used to be. Do you expect that to continue?

I don’t know if the issue is slower. The years 2005 to 2008 were incredibly strong. There was a huge amount of money around the world, and there were still a lot of restrictions locally in a lot of countries, so imported product really had its pick of the marketplace. That’s changed; a lot of that has evaporated. Money isn’t necessarily so hard to come by, but talent is, and local production facilities have really ramped up and are seriously competitive in a number of countries. The marketplace from that standpoint is challenging. And we’re still seeing a lot of the impact of piracy — that prices are depressed in many countries, particularly in Europe.

Companies like Netflix and Amazon seem to be a big part of the conversation.

It’s interesting that Netflix is starting to talk this year. They’ve never come to any AFM events before — I can’t tell you how many times we’ve invited them. This year, they wanted to be there. They’re clearly recasting themselves and trying to lead that conversation. I think from the standpoint of a smaller independent, the opportunities that they’re touting haven’t really become available. In most cases, they’re only taking certain chunks of the rights. In some cases, you’re trying to acquire product and the rights you want are available, but there’s holdbacks attached because of what Netflix has taken. Everybody is trying to find out how to make those deals work.

Gender disparity has been a big topic in Hollywood, especially with the EEOC investigation. Do you see it as a topic of conversation among independents too?

It really hasn’t been. If you look at independent companies, there’s an extraordinary array of successful women executives. From that standpoint, there is incredible conscientiousness about women’s opportunities. But then as you start to cast, because you’re so dependent on other countries, there’s always the question of how many women are sellable and how do we work our way around that. But it’s changing. You’re getting so many films with younger talent. Beyond that, it’s not a widespread conversation. I think it’s something that every country kind of addresses in their own right.

What has been your proudest moment from the past few years?

We had what we thought was one of our major wins in 2012 — China. It was this U.S.-China film agreement. For the first time as far as I’m aware in the history of the United States, the U.S. Trade Rep’s office actively negotiated on behalf of the independent companies as well as the studios. So there was a chunk of that agreement that we guided their hand on. We spent years educating them on how the independent business model is different from the studio model. Now, China hasn’t implemented any of the provisions that relate to the independents. They’re dragging their feet about introducing competition into the marketplace. I don’t think any of us thought it would be easy, but we believed that once they signed an agreement, they would pay a little bit more than lip service to it. The agreement comes up for review in 14?months. So all those issues will go back on the table.

You must have a lot of patience.

It took seven years to get to that agreement. It really only got signed because [Vice President Joe] Biden was out here and there was a lot of pressure. While it is taking longer, the fact is the marketplace is getting stronger and stronger, and once you create a strong category of competitors with a government organization, it bubbles up anyway.

What are your goals for the IFTA in the next few years?

My goals might be the same as day one, which is to make sure everybody on the independent side is still standing at the end of my term. I think there’s always an issue as to how much you actually have to do to stay in the game, and that’s difficult for any trade association to calibrate. We’ve been very successful because of the nature of our association that so much of what we do is very much about the practical ways people do business. We are going to continue to build that portfolio, and certainly groups like the European Commission are going to continue to give us opportunities to do that.