Why It May Be Easier (and More Profitable) to Make Indie Movies Abroad

Capernaum-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“The future is local,” CAA Media Finance co-head Roeg Sutherland told industry players at the Zurich Summit, noting the outsized success of foreign-language films like 'Capernaum,' a $2 million Arabic-language drama that has grossed more than $60 million, most of it in China.

It's not news that the indie film business is in crisis. Disruption of the traditional theatrical market, coupled with the collapse of the home video business — and its only partial replacement by streaming revenues — have sent many indie producers scrambling to find new models to make their movies, and make money off them.

But while U.S. indies are struggling, new opportunities have opened up for independent films made outside America. Local-language pics, often produced with local subsidies and tax breaks — financing models that have yet to be disrupted — are seeing their upside grow, thanks to Netflix. And Donald Trump.

The indie film executives gathered at the one-day Zurich Summit over the weekend — an industry event held alongside the Zurich International Film Festival — noted the growing appeal of local-language content as streaming platforms follow Netflix's lead in buying foreign-language films and series.

Roeg Sutherland, co-head of CAA media finance, estimated that Netflix will spend around $150 million on foreign-language movies this year. The streaming giant recently scooped up worldwide rights, outside of some Asian territories, for the Spanish-language sci-fi thriller The Platform, which premiered in Toronto. Other recent foreign-language buys for Netflix include Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Jérémy Clapin’s animated film I Lost My Body — both in French and debuted in Cannes.

“The platforms working with foreign-language film has opened the market tremendously,” said Vincent Maraval, co-founder of French producer/distributor Wild Bunch. “Netflix is probably the biggest client of French cinema by far. That has helped a lot for international films, the foreign-language films.”

Sutherland noted that local content quotas mean global streamers will increasingly be forced to buy homegrown films.

“Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Warner Bros, Hulu — these platforms can’t enter Europe, Latin America or Southeast Asia without spending 20 percent of their budget on local content,” he said. “Where I think the future is, is local. There will be global tentpoles and American independent films that cross over, of course, but really where I think the focus is making movies for your own (local-language) market and hope they cross over.”

Non-U.S films have also been helped, ironically enough, by President Trump. The ongoing U.S.-China trade war has hit American indies hard, with Chinese buyers preferring to buy their non-tentpole titles from less politically sensitive regions.

“It’s easier to get international, non-American content in (to China),” says Dede Nickerson of Chinese group Huanxi Media. “Japanese content, Spanish-language content, European films are getting much more play, and I think that will be growing.”

Panelists pointed to the success of Nadine Labaki’s Arabic-language drama Capernaum, produced for around $2 million and which has grossed close to $60 million, of which $54.3 million came from China.

Hirokazu Kore-eda's 2018 Cannes Palme D'or winner Shoplifters, a Korean family drama, also earned an impressive $14 million in China, more than four times its U.S. gross of $3.3 million.

“There is an opening for something other than those big Chinese movies — there is an audience for specialty art films,” noted former Lionsgate co-chairman Patrick Wachsberger.

Bollywood dramas are doing blockbuster business in the Middle Kingdom as well. Aamir Khan’s family drama Secret Superstar earned $119 million in China last year, a drop from his previous feature, the family sports drama Dangal, which pulled in a jaw-dropping $190 million in the territory.

Even older non-U.S. titles can score big. Maraval, whose Wild Bunch label represents the catalog of Japan's Studio Ghibli internationally, noted the success of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. The hand-drawn anime classic, first released in 2001, finally bowed in China this year and has grossed $69 million to date.