The Orchard Exec Paul Davidson Talks Cannes Strategy: Data, Docs and Finished Products

Paul Davidson Exec Suite - H 2016
Christina Gandolfo

"It’s a level of transparency and data that no other company provides to filmmakers," the busy exec tells THR. "By using that data, we’re able to move very quickly and pivot on how we’re marketing our film."

For nearly two decades, The Orchard was known strictly as a music distributor. But in 2014, the company — a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment — recruited Microsoft Xbox Video veteran Paul Davidson to build out a film and TV distribution business.

In the span of two years, the company has become one of the most aggressive upstarts on the festival circuit. In January, Davidson scooped up four films at Sundance including Taika Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the uplifting autism doc Life, Animated. Later that month, the company celebrated its first Oscar nomination with Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land, a lightning-fast start for an indie distributor just 18 months old.

Though Davidson, executive vp of film and television, has focused almost exclusively on finished films in the past, he is shifting his game plan heading into this year’s Cannes market thanks to the dearth of available titles screening in the festival. He expects that he won’t be alone on that front. “More than ever before, you’re going to see a lot of stuff get picked up just based on promos,” he says. “People are not going to travel 14 hours and not come back with something.”

Davidson, who oversees a staff of 40, will be on the ground with a contingent of three, looking to continue its momentum amid an increasingly competitive marketplace. The 44-year-old married father of two spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his festival strategy, the Amazon/Netflix factor and why he’ll watch Captain America: Civil War after Cannes.

As a buyer of domestic rights, how does this year’s market look to you?

Due to the fact that there are many films already spoken for by distributors, we’ll turn our attention to getting involved at an earlier stage on some of the pre-buy opportunities we are expecting will be presented at the festival.

In the past, you typically have bought only finished films. Is this a switch?

It definitely is not going to be the norm for us. In a given year, the majority of what we pick up will be finished product. But with Berlin and Cannes, which are getting more and more competitive, you have more and more companies getting involved at an earlier stage. You have to think outside the box. We bought Ghost Team with Amy Sedaris at the stage where they were just finished shooting the film, and we’ll release it in August. The package was so appealing and worth taking that leap of faith.

You bought Louder Than Bombs at Cannes last year. Is it off to the start you were expecting?

The critical reaction to that film has been even better than we expected. The reviews have been off the charts. It’s definitely an art house film, so it’s more of a marathon versus a sprint. It’s a movie that you have to really nurture the message and target the right audiences.

The Orchard touts itself as a company that provides filmmakers with up-to-the minute trending data and analytics. What does that mean?

Our filmmakers and producers have the ability to access our own dashboard that we’ve created to see in real time where [ticket] sales are coming from, what parts of the country, how we’re spending against the P&A for the film down to the category, how we are versus recoupment. It’s a level of transparency and data that no other company provides to filmmakers. When our partners see what’s accessible, they’re stunned by that level of data. And by using that data, we’re able to move very quickly and pivot on how we’re marketing our film.

Has this technology given you an edge as a buyer?

Yes. There are things that we do as a distributor that differentiates us from others. We keep our release slate to 12 theatrical movies a year. That allows filmmakers to know that we’re going to handhold them through the process and make sure that our teams are fully engaged.

Given that The Orchard and Sony Pictures Classics are both under the Sony corporate umbrella, what happens when you both want the same film?

Honestly, we’re operating autonomously as a film division. We may try to find synergy opportunities like if we’re looking at a film for domestic and Sony International may be interested in the international market. Then we’ll talk and see if there’s an opportunity to align forces from that perspective.

You’re very active in the documentary space. From a financial perspective, why are docs so appealing?

Plain and simple, documentaries versus narratives are smaller investments. It doesn’t mean that they’re not significant investments, but it requires less to release a documentary. But for us, it’s less about the cost. We’re just super passionate about documentaries as a form. Over the last five years, documentaries have become much more populist.

How competitive is the space getting with Amazon and Netflix spending so wildly?

The trend I’m seeing is many of the companies that were super aggressive about acquiring films in the past year are now putting their money into creating and developing their own original content. I think those companies will continue to generate their own movies from development all the way through production, like a studio. It doesn’t mean that they’re going 100 percent in original production, but [that’s the direction they are moving].

What’s the big trend in the indie distribution space?

Most of the indie distributors are taking on the role that studios often play, which is license books, develop scripts, package films and oversee those films through the production phase. It’s happening more and more, and it’s the result of increased competition in the marketplace and the fact that companies want to control the end result as often as they can.

What’s the best way to decompress after Cannes?

Studio film screenings. I want mindless entertainment. I’ll go see Captain America: Civil War and just enjoy a movie.