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Indie Film Biz Tested as AFM Begins and COVID-19 Still Ravaging U.S., Europe

The Deep House (Courtesy of Pulsar)

With the second wave of COVID-19 crushing hopes of an imminent strong and global restart for the entertainment industry, the resilience of the independent movie business will be tested during AFM’s virtual edition.

The first major market to unfold since the virtual Cannes Marché du Film in June, the AFM was expected to host the launch of a flood of new product, but many companies are now planning to hold back some of their projects for early next year due to the volatile climate brought on by the pandemic.

As cameras are still not rolling everywhere, sellers and buyers won’t board projects unless they have a firm production start date, so more than ever this year, the AFM will showcase finished product, and movies that are either filming or are in post. Initially regarded by many industry players as a one-off global meltdown earlier this year, the coronavirus crisis now seems like a far longer-term pandemic that the industry will have to learn to live with.

Before we take on a project we want to know what’s the production timeline and the finance plan,” says Highland Films CEO Arianne Fraser. “And the number one most important question is when are these actors available to shoot and where are they willing to travel to?

Arthouse distributors are also being more cautious and willing to splurge only on the gems. “Before this, we would go into negotiation after a major festival to pick up a film, we had some belief of [what it could gross] at the arthouse box office, so now if we estimate that it’s about one-third of that, we have to gauge our energies accordingly,” says Richard Lorber at Kino Lorber. “We know we can’t really count on the theatrical box office to be the winning hand.”

The New-York based distributor handles many prestige films that have won prizes at festivals, notably Mohammad Rasoulof’s Berlin Golden Bear-winning movie “There Is No Evil.”

As theaters are still shut down in many places, including in Los Angeles and New York, the digital consumption of movies has been skyrocketing around the world, whether transactional VOD or subscription-based streaming. Many independent sales companies have been building a slate of genre and/or family movies to thrive in the new landscape and feed the demand from streaming services and tap into ancillary markets.

At the AFM, Highland Film Group will launch sales on two thrillers directed by Randall Emmett, “Midnight in the Switchgrass” with Megan Fox, which just wrapped production, and “Wash Me in the River,” which will start shooting soon in Puerto Rico with John Malkovich and Robert De Niro; Mark Neveldine’s action thriller “Panama,” set to begin shooting in December in Colombia with Mel Gibson and Cole Hauser; and Mike Burns’ “Out of Death,” shooting this fall in Puerto Rico with Bruce Willis and Jaime King, among others.

Consumers are really looking for escapism and that’s certainly the kind of content that we provide,” says Highland Films COO Delphine Perrier. “Genre and action films that play really well on streaming services and TV channels, and as consumers are now watching more content at home than they were pre-COVID, we’ve been filling that pipeline.”

French sales banners, notably Pulsar Content, are also banking on genre. The Paris-based banner, which is collaborating with the L.A.-based company XYZ Films on sales, will host the virtual market screening of its Russian sci-fi thriller “Superdeep,” as well as unveil the first images of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s horror film “The Deep House” (pictured) and “The Execution,” Lado Kvataniya’s Russian-language serial killer crime thriller that started shooting in Russia on September.

“We’re still interested in festival-friendly auteur films and we have a few lined up for next year, but our focus now are tightly budgeted genre films with a strong concept that are cinematic and mainstream enough to work on streaming services and potentially in theaters,” says Marie Garrett, co-founder of the 1-year-old sales outfit Pulsar Content.

“Before the pandemic we used to say movies needed to open in theaters to ‘exist,’ but that has changed because of the crisis; that said, we sales agents can’t afford to cut budgets for marketing and promotion because distributors need these to give them movies some visibility.” Garrett says the company was only selling movies that will be delivered soon.

SND, the commercial arm of the French network group M6, meanwhile, will launch sales on Jerome Salle’s romance thriller “Kompromat,” which just started shooting in Lithuania with Gilles Lellouche and Joanna Kulig, and Julien Fournier’s animated adventure film “Pil’s Adventures.”

Family films are a safe pick for 2021; it’s the type of movies that will always work in theaters and distributors will be able to sell to TV channels and platforms — same with high-concept thriller,” says Charlotte Boucon, head of international sales at SND.

Gaumont, meanwhile, will be selling a wide range of completed movies, including the Celine Dion-inspired film “Aline, the Voice of Love”; Albert Dupontel’s social satire “Bye Bye Morons,” which just had a successful opening in French theaters; and will kick off pre-sales on Jean-Patrick Benes’ body-exchange comedy “Family Swap” with Frank Dubosc and Alexandra Lamy; and the Foenkinos brothers’ “Fantasies,” a French star-studded omnibus comedy (now in post) with Monica Bellucci, Karin Viard, Carole Bouquet and Nicolas Bedos, produced by Mandarin Production.

“It’s definitely not an easy market for pre-sales, but we believe that these kinds of quality arthouse films with strong concepts, cast and producers attached, we can strike deals with both traditional distributors and streaming services,” says Gaumont’s head of international sales Alexis Cassanet, who adds that the company was able to shoot four films since this summer.Production in France has restarted in a big way thanks to the €100 million [$118.5 million] indemnity fund that covers shoots during the pandemic.”

Even though theaters are still shuttered in key markets, a handful of indie U.S. distributors have been fairly active during the pandemic, including IFC Films, which released more than 10 movies between Memorial Day and Labor Day, including “The Rental,” which topped the box office and was also a hit on Apple, and “Relic.”

“It’s been a very busy summer. I have not been that person baking bread and binge-watching TV,” says Arianna Bocco, the executive vice president of acquisitions and production at Sundance Selects and IFC Films. The 20-year-old distribution recently launched IFC Films Unlimited, its own subscription video-on-demand platform, and operates different successful labels, notably the genre-focused IFC Midnight. The company has been making acquisitions at a steady pace and is planning several day-and-date releases, notably “My Salinger Year,” whose roll-out is being planned for the first quarter of 2021.

Right now the plan [with ‘My Salinger Year’] is to go in theaters and on VOD simultaneously. We obviously don’t know what the theatrical situation will be like in March but we’re monitoring it,” says Bocco.

Beyond the COVID issue, Bocco says the biggest challenge for independent distributors right now is how competitive the market is. “It’s a very competitive buyers’ market out there, so we’re looking at getting in a little bit earlier on things, and we are trying to think outside of the box in terms of the kinds of films that are working,” says Bocco, who cites global services including Netflix and Amazon, as well as indie outfits Neon, Bleecker Street, Magnolia and Sony Pictures Classics as competitors.

“It’s clear that some of the genre films have really worked well for us this summer, and I think we’re not straying far from our core business, which has always been about releasing quality auteur-driven, and a mix of great narratives, foreign-language documentaries and genre,” says Bocco.

Indeed, the rise in digital business doesn’t only profit genre or family films, but also critically acclaimed arthouse movies, points out Lorber.

Lorber says the sales on its 1-year-old transactional VOD service, Kino Now, has grown over 300% over the past six months. He says the kinds of movies that perform best on the platform are well-reviewed festival films that won top prizes in all the international festivals. After waiting in vain for theaters to reopen to distribute his recent award-winning acquisitions, such as “There Is No Evil” and Pietro Marcello’s Venice- and Toronto-winning “Martin Eden,” Lorber opted to release them through its recently launched virtual theatrical exhibition initiative, Kino Marquee, and has been satisfied with the results, even if they “don’t match the box-office level of a physical release.”

One of the positive trends that have emerged during the pandemic is the uptick in physical video business, says Lorber, who adds that it has been up by almost 30% in 2020.

Film lovers want to watch and own these DVD collectors at home because they know that they might disappear from Netflix or Amazon at some point and never surface again on any device. … And a third of the U.S. population does not have adequate bandwidth to stream movies. That’s a little-known reality,” he says.

Dylan Leiner at Sony Pictures Classics, meanwhile, says the company is “sticking with its theatrical-first model” and adds that he believes audiences will want to return to theaters to see “big event movies but also films that have a real emotional honesty and authenticity.” Leiner cites “The Father,” Florian Zeller’s movie with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, as a drama that will likely strike a chord with audiences. “The Father” is one of SPC’s three movies, along with “The Climb” and “The Truffle Hunters,” set for a theatrical rollout during the fourth quarter of 2020.

While the pandemic has challenged the independent distribution model, sales agents are feeling optimistic about the prospects. “In the short term it has been a shock wave, but the market has been reassuringly buoyant,” says George Hamilton, the head of sales at London-based Protagonist who will unveil exclusive footage on a new genre film during the AFM.

The bottom line, says Cécile Gaget, who recently joined the London-based financier and producer Anton as president of international production and distribution, is that “buyers need films for 2022 and they’re looking for strong scripts with cast attached which will start shooting during the first quarter of 2021.” The banner’s roster includes STX’s “Greenland,” starring Gerard Butler; “The Night House,” starring Rebecca Hall, acquired by Searchlight Pictures for worldwide distribution; and the animated “Fireheart” from the creators of “Ballerina” (aka “Leap!”).

As the industry prepares for the virtual AFM, many companies will conduct Zoom meetings without getting an accreditation for the formal market.

“Even before COVID, the AFM was already rife for a transition because it’s a very old-fashioned model and buyers and sellers were looking for a different, more interactive and dynamic experience,” said Leiner.

Although he looks forward to the return of physical markets, Leiner says the “silver lining to this online version of a market is that it gives an opportunity for more members of the team to have engagement between them, both from the seller side and for the buyer side, people who wouldn’t normally travel to a place have an opportunity to become involved and to build relationships.”

Variety's Elsa Keslassy contributed to this post.

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