"No Easy Solution": Filmmakers Weigh Risks of SXSW's Amazon Offer

Austin SXSW March 9 2020

"Showing things for free isn't going to make a dent," says one producer of a project that has opted out of the tech giant's festival collection.

As cancellations and postponements of film festivals keep up amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Hollywood is trying to find solutions for stranded filmmakers and their projects. One such effort came on April 2, when South by Southwest unveiled a partnership with Amazon Prime Video to launch a "film festival collection," where SXSW-bound films could play exclusively on the platform in the U.S. for a 10-day period — the length of the now-canceled Austin fest. 

The collection, introduced by SXSW director of film Janet Pierson and Amazon Studios’ Jennifer Salke, will not be subject to Amazon Prime’s paywall, thereby offering exposure to a wider audience base — anyone in the U.S. with an internet connection can watch — than titles would have gotten in person at a festival. But filmmakers worry that screening their features online, even for a short window, could impact the future sales prospects of their titles. ?

SXSW filmmakers who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter, and all asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution, are appreciative of the festival's efforts but note that they see the potential platform as giving their hard-won independent feature away for free, with little personal return.

“I love South By and I love Amazon and I love that they are trying to do something, but it feels like this might hurt the filmmakers in the end,” says a director behind one of the festival’s narrative features. The movie will not be a part of the Amazon collection.

Films that have already secured some form of distribution will likely have to opt out, while acquisition titles fear that opting in may impact their chances at finding a distributor later. THR spoke to two sales agents with former SXSW titles, and both immediately advised their clients against signing up for the collection.  

“Unfortunately, showing things for free isn’t going to make a dent,” says one producer behind a SXSW documentary, which will not be a part of the Amazon program. They add, “It’s a really challenging time, but the best thing these platforms can do is go back into business and start buying films.”

THR reviewed the email sent by festival programmers to accepted SXSW filmmakers outlining the Amazon film festival collection, which included a FAQ section. In the communication, it was made clear to filmmakers that participating in the festival collection is not the equivalent of having Amazon as a distribution partner. Filmmakers have been directly liaising with SXSW, and the festival, not the streaming service, will be paying the “screening fee” promised to filmmakers that choose to participate.

The compensation would be delivered after the projects complete the 10-day run on the service. But it is was unclear to filmmakers what type of compensation that "screening fee" would be, which was troubling for filmmakers that were trying to accurately weigh the possible financial risk.

“We spent three years, our budget wasn’t big, but it was three years of our lives. We aren’t gong to kill the distribution chances for this film for an unknown sum,” says one documentary director, who has chosen not to have his movie participate in the collection.

The option to participate in the film festival collection has only been extended to narrative and documentary features — the kinds of independent projects most likely to be seeking distribution — as well as selections in SXSW’s Episodic Premieres section. Shorts films and episodic pilots will not be included at this time.

"Although this opportunity won't be right for everyone's overall film strategy, we are confident that it has significant value depending on your overall plans," reads the email that was signed from Pierson and the festival's other programmers.

Other film festivals affected by coronavirus are now looking into how they can best pivot programming. On April 3, the postponed Tribeca Film Festival announced that festival titles that choose to opt in will be available to screen online for journalists and members of the industry via the Industry Extranet Resource Hub. After its cancelation, SXSW took a similar step with platform Shift72, the official secure online screening library, which was used to screen the festival’s competition titles for judges, and simultaneously allowed filmmakers to choose if their titles could be made available to press and buyers. 

It was revealed last week that CAA Media Finance is backing a new film market jointly launched by the San Sebastian and Zurich international film festivals, both of which take place in September, that will highlight titles selected from both SXSW and Tribeca. Prior to this, CAA floated the idea of a “digital marketplace” that would see film companies facilitate online screenings and deal negotiation via video conferencing, in the event Cannes gets canceled. The French fest has since been postponed, with a new date yet to be determined.

Canceled a week before it was due to begin, SXSW did not have the benefit of time to consider a postponement or put in place measures that would allow their festival an easy transition into a virtual space. "We know there is no easy solution here,” says a filmmaker. "I hope Toronto and Sundance are paying attention."

The deadline for interested filmmakers to finish all deliverables, including a release agreement, to participate in Amazon's film festival collection is April 9, less than one week after the SXSW filmmakers were made aware of the program. It is currently unclear, even for Amazon, how many films will be a part of the collection, but the streamer is aiming to mount the digital festival in late April.

"It has only been a month [since the SXSW cancellation]. There is still a lot of uncertainty," says one SXSW filmmaker. This person adds, "As a filmmaker, it is hard to have patience right now. But the right thing will come. This didn’t seem like the right thing.”