Indie Film's Call to Action: Embrace Change or Die

Nick Jonas in 'Midway' — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of AGC Studios

Stuart Ford urges theatrical distributors to work with streaming services for the best chance to thrive: "We believe we can do business with everybody."

Buyers from around the world, from studios to indies and from theatrical to streamers, packed the main theater at the ArcLight Cinema in Santa Monica on Wednesday for what was arguably the hottest ticket at this year’s American Film Market: the presentation of the upcoming slate of features, documentaries and TV series from new(ish) production and sales group AGC Studios. 

Since Stuart Ford launched AGC just 18 months ago, the group has made a lot of noise on the indie scene, producing, co-producing, financing or distributing 12 feature films and boarding nearly 80 films and TV projects at various stages of development. As the company’s biggest title — Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic Midway — rolls out across much of the world this week, Ford presented AGC’s lineup and unveiled his vision for an indie industry that combines the traditional as well as the disruptive.

The presentation included trailers of Tate Taylor’s dark comedy Breaking News in Yuba County, starring Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Juliette Lewis and Awkwafina; Neil Burger’s sci-fi thriller Voyagers — a Lord of the Flies in space tale featuring Colin Farrell, Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp; and The Secrets We Keep, a revenge thriller starring Noomi Rapace as a Holocaust survivor and Joel Kinnaman as a man she believes to be her former tormentor. 

AGC also showed a short teaser trailer for Emmerich’s Moonfall. The $150 million sci-fi epic — the biggest indie project seen for years — recently secured key financing from China and will begin production next year for a planned delivery in 2021.

Before the presentation, Ford addressed the elephant in the room: the widespread fear among indie distributors that are being sidelined by the big production and sales outfits, many of whom prefer to sell their biggest and most commercial titles directly to a major studio or a major streamer.

"We don’t see platforms like AFM as a staging post, as a thinly veiled excuse to auction movies off to the studios," he said. "We don’t see this as a Plan B alternative to selling to streamers. We believe we can do business with everybody."

The increasing dominance of studio tentpoles and the online explosion of streaming services has undermined the traditional financial model for independent cinema. The thousands of international executives at AFM this year are scrambling to find alternative models that will allow them to survive, and prosper, in the new world order.

"The independent sector is getting more and more ghettoized and squeezed by the digital streaming ecosystem and the studio tentpole ecosystem," Ford told THR. "Everybody needs to embrace change in the way we do deals, in the way we finance, produce and distribute movies."

With deep-pocketed streamers including Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock entering the market, Ford said demand for premium content has never been higher as are the potential rewards for independent producers and distributors. However, he says the indie film industry has to break free of its rigid business models.

"People in the international marketplace have to start getting more flexible about windowing, they have to become less reliant on the U.S. theatrical release being a validation in itself," he said. "People have to start investing in projects earlier instead of just showing up and waiting for someone to present a complete package to you. … The indie industry has to be creative and break new ground on our deal structures and our business models if we are to survive, and thrive."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 7 daily issue at the American Film Market.