CAA’s Micah Green, Roeg Sutherland on the State of the Indie Film Business

Micah Green and Roeg Sutherland
Michael Lewis for Variety

There have been relentless questions lately about the future of independent films, given the competition from TV and the costs associated with theatrical distribution. But to hear Micah Green and Roeg Sutherland, the co-heads of CAA’s film finance and sales group, talk about the business, there’s never been a better time to invest in or sell a small movie.

They point to an increasing number of players — Netflix, Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street, and A24 — all scrambling for product. And although some festival favorites have underperformed at the box office this year (like The Weinstein Company’s “Sing Street”), there have also been bright spots like “Eye in the Sky,” “Hello, My Name is Doris,” and the summer hit “Sausage Party,” which was financed by Annapurna Pictures.

Ahead of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Green and Sutherland talked to Variety about how the market is evolving. All-night bidding wars may continue to be a less common occurrence, since distributors are becoming more inclined to scoop up movies earlier in the year at script or production stages, because competition is so fierce. “We do think that’s changed in the marketplace in the last year,” says Sutherland.

CAA is entering Toronto having pre-sold 10 titles, including “American Honey” (A24), “Snowden” (Open Road), “Nocturnal Animals” (Focus Features), and “Neruda” (The Orchard) — a sign that the first few days of the festival could be slow. Here’s what Green and Sutherland have to say on the state of the business.

You say there has never been a better time for independent films. How is that possible?

Green: The business for filmmakers is more complex than it’s ever been. There are far more outlets for distribution than there have been, but the outlets are all different. It makes the process of figuring out how to get movies released more challenging than it used to be. That doesn’t mean fewer films are being released; in fact, far more movies are being released. Similarly, with financing, there used to be a handful of places to go to finance legitimate theatrical films. The consequence of the work we’re doing is that far more movies are getting made, far more movies are getting released, and a lot of people are making money.

Sutherland: A lot of it has to be with new platforms. I’m thinking of one we sold at Cannes [Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” to Amazon Studios]. Four or five years ago, that was the kind of movie we would push through production, and hopefully sell it off footage or the completed film. Now the market is robust enough that movies like that can be pre-sold at the script stage, which allows financiers to feel more confident taking a bigger risk.

Is it really just Netflix and Amazon that have upended the business?

Green: Certainly, Netflix and Amazon are interesting outlets for movies. Alongside them have come a number of well-capitalized conventional distributors, from A24 to Bleecker Street, as well as the studios themselves having renewed interest in high-end dramatic films. You see everyone from New Regency to Sony to Paramount fiercely competing.

Is there a void because The Weinstein Company isn’t buying as many independent films?

Sutherland: Harvey Weinstein is a great distributor. If he’s not distributing independent films, of course he’s going to leave a void. Our business is very cyclical. There are new companies, and companies will disappear. Losing buyers is disappointing and hard, but ultimately it’s about how we react to it and rebuild.

How would you rate the global market right now?

Sutherland: Europe is really strong. Asia is obviously very strong, and China in particular. I think that will help in the financing plan of a lot of companies.

Green: In the last few years, Roeg and his colleagues have spent a long time in
Beijing, trying to find strong partners for our film packaging and financing business. A lot of what we do these days is not financing individual projects — it’s raising money for companies in the film business.

How do you reconcile the picture you’re painting with weak box office numbers for some festival darlings?

Green: We don’t buy for a second this argument that adult dramas don’t work. What works today across culture is that quality matters. Things that are not of high quality have a very hard time. The public is much more connected, thanks to social media. If you are trying to sell something that isn’t legitimately strong, people will find out quickly and lose interest. So oftentimes you hear people bemoaning how weak the market is. But what’s really happening is that they’re suffering. They’re having a hard time having success with a movie that isn’t being embraced.

Sutherland: You can’t buy a weekend anymore. By Friday night, if a movie isn’t good, the public knows it.

So you think in terms of box office, independent film is still strong?

Green: Actually, I would say what’s happening right now in terms of box office … it’s one of the best times it’s ever been for independently created film. Does that mean a rising tide lifts all boats? I don’t think the movie business has ever worked that way. Last year, movies like “Sicario” and “Brooklyn” were the ones that popped.

How would you rate this year’s Toronto market?

Green: We probably have more movies than in previous years that are premiering. But you have a ton of activity on the smaller movies, because there are so many buyers now, from digital companies to emerging companies.

Sutherland: It really has to do with distributors pre-buying films — they’re pre-buying so many films, and being active, that there’s less of those selling-a-movie-overnight-in-Toronto experiences.

Are the deals taking longer to close because of all the different distribution options?

Green: Sure, [with] some of the bigger movies, it’s taking a day or two longer than it used to, because there’re more buyers. I think it’s still pretty brisk. The same thing is going to happen that happens every year: The festival ostensibly starts on Thursday. By Saturday, people will be complaining that it’s a slow market. By Monday, there will be a ton of deals happening. The pattern is, most buyers want to see almost everything before making hard decisions.

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