MIA Talk: Independent Distribution Highlights

Discussion: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Distribution But Were Afraid to Ask, Mercato Internazionale Audiovisivo (MIA) 2015

Held at the MIA Rome was an open panel on independent distribution hosted by Andreas Wiseman, chief reporter at Screen International. As the MIA description postulates: “Far from being mere intermediaries who stand in the shadows, independent distributors are an essential asset to the circulation of films. They must adapt to an ever-changing marketplace, where consumer behaviour is fluctuating and new entertainment models are emerging constantly.”

For two hours, the panelists explored the role of the independent distributor in today’s film climate. Particularly discussed were the challenges that traditional distribution models now face (such as Netflix and other VOD platforms), the value of events such as film festivals and markets, and the important role that film critics play.

Sharing their perspective from different territories, the main speakers from independent distribution companies were: Ivo Andrle (Aerofilm, Czech Republic), Andy Whittaker (Dogwoof, UK), Kent Sanderson (Bleecker Street Media, US), Susan Wendt (Trustnordisk, Denmark), Olivier Mortagne (Paradiso Filmed Entertainment, Benelux), Greta Akcijonaite (Kino Pasaka, Lithuania) and Stefano Massenzi (Lucky Red, Italy).

SineScreen duly brings you highlights of the discussion.

Initial Thoughts

Wiseman: If writers, directors, and actors are the heart of the industry, then financiers are the muscle and distributors are the brain. Distributors make the body move. Tremendous difficulties are now faced by the industry – from financing, audiences, political issues in Europe – the shadow of DSM looms over us all – and movements are now taking place. Can you briefly summarise your perspectives before we get into it?

Whittaker: We need a lot of innovation just to stay ‘still’ or relevant.

Mortagne: In Holland there’s a strong traditional theatrical culture where people still go to smaller theatres.

Massenzi: Anything that has an audience, a hook. Our aim is quality, which doesn’t mean a good movie in general. Quality means a good movie for that audience. A 12-year-old’s interest is different from a 4-year-old’s. One word I wouldn’t want is “niche” – you need an audience, a big audience.

Then vs Now

Wiseman: When traditional models are expanding, transforming – perhaps even splintering before us, what does it mean to be a distributor today compared to 10 years ago?

Mortagne: Before we had a safety net so we could take more risks, but now we really have to calculate. That safety net for us is gone.

Andrle: I’m not very good in talking about big pictures of the industry, but in my point of view it’s been the same from the beginning as it is today. The real truth behind it is that always we have to understand and actually love the product we work with. I learned within the last ten, fifteen years that doing things just for business or without an emotional touch never works for us. We’ve been lucky to exist this way until today. All motivation: that’s my first rule. Some might think theatrical is not so important any more – that’s OK, that works for them. But we need to love the product and keep watching cinema, so that’s most important for us.

Passion vs Money

Wiseman: There’s a question of emotions and passions in film versus the bottom line, the economics, and the fact you’re generating business. To what extent are the decisions you make as a distributor governed by passions for film and value, and by what will resonate with your target audience?

Sanderson: Rather than passion, I think the easier way to resonate with audiences is through a unique movie that’s going to get good word of mouth and reviews. It goes back to consumers now having more choice of what they’re able to watch. How’s your movie going to stand out? Word of mouth and reviews are paramount. Multiplexes are stacked with studio titles. The two largest DOB outlets are iTunes and Comcast, which have a good aggregate of all reviews available next to the purchase and rent button. Hopefully something special will travel well whether theatrical or digital.

Whittaker: It’s the film business. I will be out of business. Dogworth is privately funded so the key for us is that it’s all about risk. We buy a film and promote it to raise awareness. Find the film, find the audience, monetize it.

Massenzi: Passion can be misleading, because if you’re too passionate, then you lose control. The worst experiences were the films we really loved and people not going to see them as much as you’d hoped. It’s always gonna do less than what you expect. It remains a business, about hunting and creating. Being independent is creating something that is not obvious. We are in the same market as major companies. We are the creators of everything else and suppliers of everything else that fills the gap. Sometimes that becomes very big – for example, Philomena, we bought out of passion, overpaid, and it paid off – it became gigantic because the audience connected with it. There are other stories about passion that didn’t go that way – like Nebraska.

 The Importance of Critics and Festivals

Wiseman: Another question is of the critics being so important in ‘making it happen’, making your job easier in a way. And we talked about the role that festivals play today, which was very interesting. Are some festivals more important than ever before?

Massenzi: I see an increasing detachment between the critics and the audience. [Critics] are losing the role of educating and losing themselves in themselves. Market reactions. It’s not very good because critics are a key to the business like cinemas and producers are. It’s all one body. Festivals are important as a stamp because there’s too much – consumers, our clients, are exposed to too many trailers, too many movies. Every single country in the world produces too many films. So, we’re hunters because we look for the ones that can be brought out and get an audience – but we need tools . . . I can also criticise the way prizes are given away. There’s a big detachment from audiences in festivals. Whatever prize goes to a film that isn’t praised by the audience – which is king – we have a problem. If, this year, I released a film with a certain prize and the same next year, sometimes overly extreme arthouse films, the festival can become not so useful. It’s a combination. Reviews and so on. You can’t control it. It’s all outside your means of control, so you have to navigate it, hope it wins the right prize.

Wendt: On a B2B level, on our sides, festivals are really important to get the film recognized, important to let distributors know the films exist. It’s tough for audiences but there’s another thing for pure awareness of the film to even get distribution in different territories. Festivals need to attract distributors. Especially films from Scandinavia. In order for those films to travel, you need a stamp and a platform where distributors understand the film exists and are going to see it. The life of films is shortened in terms of the international business – because of all the platforms, online and so on. You only have a small niche and one shot to get a film going.

Key Festivals and Critics

Wiseman: Critics and festivals might be a little political but I want to know how you rate the festivals. Which ones really help your films? There are so many. To what extent do those smaller festivals functionally provide today for your film? And with regard to critics, which are the key ones to you going forward? Local reviews, RottenTomatoes, MetaCritic? What stamps are key?

Sanderson: The food at Cannes is wonderful. [Laughter] Winning at Sundance doesn’t necessarily mean it will attract a mainstream audience. In terms of critics you have to back up and say how are you releasing the screen? If there are a thousand screens in week one then RottenTomatoes is best. Otherwise the New York Times, LA Times, will help drive opening weekend numbers. You have to start with your territory and of course, your release pattern.

Andrle: Lately people are led more by opinionmakers that come from outside the critic world. Random people help a thousand more times than standard critics. Lately we’ve been looking for opinionmakers in different fields to connect with audiences. On film festivals, I’d like to put more importance on local film festivals. For example in our territory we have a very small but well-attended festival for Nordic films, which connects with lots of people that like Nordic culture, travelling there, films. We like this small film event for releasing, as a starting base, because it’s the right audience, it helps us get connected. This is just one example.

Massenzi: The Internet allows anybody to write anything they like. My issue is not freedom of speech but the role of the critic, which maybe we need another panel to discuss. I have a specific idea – maybe I’m idealistic – but the role of the critic is to educate in a positive way. Many times I read things that are just a way of destroying. What’s our job? Business. Role of critics – educational would help.

Whittaker: Peter Bradshaw is a critic for the Guardian. For years he’s been writing reviews. It can make or break. But in the last couple of years the big change is that the people can reply via comments. Within 2 minutes people are writing their own reviews. That is a massive change

Audience Member: Trade reviewers have been trained to file reviews straight after screening because they’re competing on the Twitterverse. Rotten tomatoes comments never align with the critics – but commenters are coming straight from the heart.

Too many markets?

Wiseman: There are challenges faced by cutting through markets. Cannes, Berlin, AFM, Toronto. We now have Rome, trying to establish itself this year. Are there enough? Too many? Other places to do business? Can it be done online more?

Wendt: if we want to go and travel every day, every year, then we could. But in terms of what makes sense, it is still Berlin and Cannes as major, with Toronto and Venice – though Venice can’t be alone – coming in straight after. For us, those are the important places – and importantly, this cannot transfer into an online forum. It’s [about] feeling the pressure for distributors. Talk of the town. That’s the only way you get focus on your film. Competitors battling, standing in line for the same movie – that’s what gets the ball rolling. It’s important not to commit to too many film festivals.

Whittaker: We have a film called The Fear of 13 which was at London Film Festival and got good reviews. Too many markets? Not every film can be at Cannes or Berlin. Rome is great for us because that film will be pitched. What we need at markets is for buyers and sellers to be there. Yes, you could travel every week, but what you want is to meet lots of buyers and sellers in one place – a healthy mix – so markets should be encouraged. Again, not everyone can be in Toronto, so Rome has the benefit of that as well. Many are pitching from everywhere. As long as there’s that critical mass, then there could be more markets.

Massenzi: in terms of festivals, I was just at the opening of Rome Film Festival. There’s not enough good movies to have a selection that makes sense. Festivals like London, Toronto, Rome, are a platform. We have seven movies here – too many – but it’s because the timing is right. Good timing to have press concentrate and the audience start getting aware. Good platforms with this formula. There has to be new stuff to make it more interesting. As a distributor, Rome as it is today is very useful. I see Rome growing through the years as a market. Not everybody goes to LA – too expensive, you’re too small, it’s focused on US product – so Rome could be a good apointment between Toronto (screening) and Berlin (for those who don’t go to AFM, since it’s all that video product that doesn’t go to theatres and big stuff). We need to see these movies at least. I buy any day, all through the year. It’s a day-to-day business, of course. At markets, who sells manages to create competition and attention – not that I like it – but it’s key for us, since we realize something is there, maybe late, we could have bought it before.

Audience Member: There are many festivals that are not commercial. Seattle, San Francisco, local ones in your countries – the issue is that the life of a film, once introduced at a market, is 6 months, 90% of the world, there’s always the edge. There’s a quick “now”. Festivals are trampolines, one to the next – if you catch a great wave, you can get a land at a festival that is otherwise very crowded. The internet has been asking us to evaluate the level of authenticity which films can create. France has a history of putting a film in the lower echelon of public esteem if it’s been at Cannes. Look at the history prices of Sundance and see how many have ever been released.

Head of Locarno: Locarno is an important festival but of course with an arthouse profile. We are not competing with Cannes, Berlin, Venice, but we have a huge reputation. If you don’t like the films we select, you don’t come as buyers or sellers – we don’t have a market, nor want to develop one. We have an intersurface. Last year our artistic director saw around 3000 new films. We selected 100 new films, and not all of them had sales companies or distributors. It’s getting more difficult. We don’t need more markets, we need more visibility for films. My question is: what’s going on with this 2,900 films that we didn’t take?

Whittaker: Simple answer. Too many films are being made. This doesn’t mean don’t make more films, it just means quality. Is Locarno a gatekeeper or curator? Serves too great a purpose to narrow down. There’s a good chance that [we] can piggyback off that.

Too many films?

Wiseman: I wonder about this ‘glut’ of films. Is there too much money available for some producers? What other ways do you have at your disposal to cut through to knowing which films will work?

Wendt: Having professional sales agents that know which films work or fit into slates of films. For me, meetings with distributors are not to pitch twenty films to every distributor but to pinpoint that out of these films, we should focus on this, this, and this.

VOD and Netflix

Wiseman: The deal structure poses opportunities and challenges for distributors today. How do you cut deals with VOD platforms in mind? For example, Netflix has 65 million subscribers worldwide. It’s coming to Italy. Take it as a case study. Netflix is in each territory. How are they changing the way you do business?

Sanderson: America has been with Netflix the longest. It’s evolved. Netflix either wants big studio content now – like the big 2017 Disney deal – and independent movies they can either acquire or produce on a worldwide VOD basis. Starting players like The Orchard are enthusiastic about jumping in, but Bleecker can’t.

Wiseman: How closely do you interact with Amazon Prime?

Sanderson: Amazon are a huge company – Studio is one group acquiring and producing; Prime is content acquisition. We have ongoing dialogue with both sides. Prime is a traditional deal. Studios is new.

Andrle: From time to time in negative moments I have a bad dream about going to Cannes and everything says, “sold out” because Netflix was there. [Laughter] But then I switch to my positive mood. Luckily we don’t have Netflix yet in Czech Republic, but it helps VOD consumers change habits watching online. Friend rather than foe, I hope. [Czech Republic] never made money during the golden years of video. We’re making money from VOD and in general we love it, we’re hoping for more people to be ready to legally watch stuff online. We do have a big habit of piracy online. I hope more people will switch to legal use.

Akcijonaite: In Lithuania we were last country in Europe – until now we don’t have VOD platform that offers legal online screenings. Probably Netflix will eventually come to Lithuania so fast it will change the market in one day, without a prepatory base for the industry.

Mortagne: We thought it was very positive, a paying model, but now we see their mentality that all movies must be bought for a limited amount of money. Netflix has so many global subscribers but never say how many per nation. They don’t pay according to number of local subscribers. Their main business is series – films are there to fill the gaps – and they’re starting to buy movies internationally. They have a disruptive model. Netflix France encroaches on theatrical Belgium.

Wendt: Transition period. We can see with Netflix they’re starting to buy worldwide rights (very selectively) and feature documentaries. You can’t get distributors on board in different territories. There’s risk in films that need a theatrical release because the money counts. It’s a balance, a thing in development now. Netflix is still selective. For feature documentaries it can be a threat.

Massenzi: The real issue is not Netflix – I agree with Wendt, one here, one there – but the audience is getting more sophisticated, and there’s a bigger detachment between them and the product. You need to run your numbers properly, no passion, just number. The biggest issue now is that television’s better than movies! We live in an environment where cinema is important and theatrical – we need product that goes up on big screen – as said, too many being made – but the talent is moving around. Major companies financing movies, their talents are going to write for Netflix, HBO, showtime. Passionate consumers of audiovisuals. The quality of everything in TV productions is so good and connects with audiences in completely different ways for longer times, and the storytelling is completely different. We’re not competing with Netflix but rather the product, another use of your free time. Cinema is one of the greatest experiences, even better than television – no comparison.

Migrations to Television

Wiseman: Are you thinking about taking on more TV?

Whittaker: We see the opportunity, partly from survival – the UK market gets very tough. We’re now looking at series, whether web or TV, and starting to get into that market. You cannot rely on the old model. It’s just gone. People are scared of piracy, now they’re scared of Netflix. There are more and more watchers online. But the mindset has to change. I don’t know what the answer is, but there’s a mindset about how people are going to make money and survive. It’s all changing. It’s interesting times.

Sanderson: Is there too much TV out there? There are more great 13-hour series than I could possibly watch in my lifetime. TV execs in America have already said that there’s going to be a thinning.

Audience Member: It was published in 2013 that 18-30 year olds (a powerful demographic) watch via handhelds and tablets. It’s interesting to see this model emerging. How are you tooling up your companies to adjust to the technological changes taking place in how people consume content on different devices?

Sanderson: If you have movies for 35-year-olds and over that matters less than for milennials. I think regardless you have to look at where your movie is and look at where the audience lives. Core audience – are they watching on tablets? Theatres? VOD? If over 35 or 45 they’re likely to rent via an MSO like Comcast. There’s less marketing on XBOX or PS4 because that wastes money.

Relevance of Talent

Wiseman: How relevant is talent and names relevant to your companies? Names can help get things financed. The same names are bandied around – it’s a small pool. Are audiences looking for different kinds of actors or still going for big names? Any foolproof directors? If there was one actor, writer, or director that you could have an output deal with, who would that be and why?

Mortagne: Meryl Streep is reasonably failproof; Leonardo diCaprio too although he’s usually not available for independent films. Directors? Scorsese. Again, names that are difficult to access for the independent market. Are audiences as concerned with big stars?

Sanderson: if you have a bad movie, we’re relying on momentum to break out theatrical and then eventually video release. You have to know your core markets. There are still ways to “cheat” – multiplexes, marketing budgets, VOD. Clickbait for VOD consumers. Nicholas Cage has had a really big run on VOD models with some consistency. As platform releases, a lot of those films wouldn’t roll out the same way.

Massenzi: I would take Wes Anderson. His films strike hearts in terms of passion and market. Something new. Anderson has consistently good movies, and the audience has followed. The package is important.

The first edition of the MIA Rome is taking place from 16 to 20 October 2015.

Melissa Legarda Alcantara

Melissa Legarda Alcantara

Melissa is the editor of SineScreen. She enjoys dark chocolate, film festivals, and finding Freudian undertones where they don't exist. Catch her on Twitter at @melissalegarda.


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