AFM Interview: Altitude’s Mike Runagall on the State of the Independent Film Market

Altitude's Mike Runagall on the State

Variety speaks to Mike Runagall, managing director of London’s Altitude Film Sales, about the company’s slate at the American Film Market, how it stands out from the crowd, the state of the independent film market, and the pros and cons of selling films at AFM.

What are the highlights of your AFM slate?
We’re bringing one new title to the market, which is called “Gateway 6.” It’s an elevated science-fiction thriller in the vein of “Ex Machina” and “Moon,” from debut director Tanel Toom, who had an Oscar nominated short in 2010 called “The Confession.” One of the reasons we started the company was to forge relationships with new and dynamic filmmakers early on, and build ongoing relationships with them.

Then there is Colm McCarthy’s “She Who Brings Gifts,” which stars Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine. It’s a fresh take on a post-apocalyptic thriller, based on Mike Carey’s best-selling novel. We’re showing a teaser at AFM and more extensive footage at Berlin.

Another is Johannes Roberts’ “47 Meters Down,” a high-concept underwater thriller about two sisters who go cage diving off the Mexican coast. The cable attached to the boat snaps and the cage sinks to the ocean floor. The film plays out almost in real time with the women running out of air, trapped underwater and surrounded by Great White Sharks.

How does Altitude stand out from the AFM crowd?
We’re not just a sales company — Altitude is also a U.K. distributor and a production company, and this vertical integration sets us apart. The role of a sales company has evolved from traditionally being the interface between producers and distributors. You have to have more control over your own destiny, get in earlier and have a bigger stake in the content you’re bringing to the marketplace.

From the get-go, when we started the company three and a half years ago, our ambition was to be a meaningful producer in the U.K. and elsewhere. Of the 30 or so films we have been involved in on the sales side, just under half we have produced or executive produced in some way.

What are the major developments affecting the independent film market?
The main shift is the volatility in the market. The old business model doesn’t work anymore. There’s been a significant decline in certain markets, such as Russia; some territories have been affected by piracy, such as Spain; and the digital age has yet to deliver enough to replace the lost revenues from DVD.

The rise of television in recent years also marks a sea change. Television was once the poor relation, but it’s just as compelling as film nowadays. Casting remains the biggest headache. A show built around A-list talent like “True Detective” felt like a watershed moment. The industry also isn’t creating new stars in the way it used to.

The key is to find those stories that will compel people to go to the cinema in a world where you are competing against studio tentpoles and superhero franchises. There are still real opportunities, especially for older audiences — that market is under-served.

Distributors have to see the theatrical potential in the films. There’s no middle ground anymore. The value chain has been eroded because of the lack of ancillary value so the focus is very much on those projects that can punch through theatrically.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of AFM compared with other film events?
It’s well attended, and it continues to be an effective place to launch projects, if you have the right elements, but it’s a tough place to screen films. In recent years, Toronto has become increasingly important and we’ve done very well there. Toronto, in some ways, can be seen as the start of AFM. AFM is better for genre films, and direct-to-video content; if you have prestige films, it can be better to wait for Berlin.

Where do you like to go to socialize while you are at the AFM?
I like the spit and sawdust bars, like Chez Jay on Ocean Avenue. I like that sort of unpretentious place. Also, there is a great Japanese restaurant called Musha on Wilshire Blvd., which is a hidden gem.

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