Bizzers optimistic about H’wood possibilities

Future of Film summit looks to digital marketing, Chinese potential

Above: Director-Writer Kevin Smith speaks onstage during a Keynote Conversation at the Future Of Film Summit in Los Angeles (Photo by Mark Davis/WireImage)

Investors are coming back. Digital sales are making a dent in the bottom line. Filmmakers are getting a grip on China, digital marketers are gaining traction with target auds, and emerging platforms are starting to deliver promising results.

After a handful of gut-check years in Hollywood, bizzers are feeling truly optimistic again, judging by the mood at the Variety Future of Film Summit.

“VOD dollars are starting to show up in ultimates reports,” said David Shaheen, managing director at JPMorgan Chase’s entertainment group, speaking at the morning session “State of the Film Industry.”

Tucker Tooley, president of Relativity Media, said investors are back in business as the industry and economic conditions that roiled it since 2008 begin to “normalize.”

“Over the course of time, we’re finding a balance,” said Tooley, one of more than 50 execs, investors, filmmakers, marketers and other bizzers assembled Wednesday at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills.

Missing from the daylong conversation was the notion of “cautious optimism” that’s permeated panels past; though the go-go days of peaking DVD are long gone, the sense is that Hollywood is humming again.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to fear.

“All I know is, we’re screwed when the Baby Boomers die out,” quipped Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics in a morning keynote conversation with Variety editor-in-chief Timothy Gray. Though his remark drew a big laugh, Bernard expressed real concern about the moviegoing generation that’s still holding up theatrical, particularly for “smart movies.”

Bernard said the upcoming generation of entertainment consumers, motivated by discovery and social sharing, will cause even more fragmentation of interests. “There are going to be a lot more movies made for these audiences,” he said, “and we have got to find those audiences.”

That’ll largely be the job of digital marketing teams, whose work is swiftly becoming influential up and down the filmmaking process.

“Regardless of what department you’re in, you should know digital,” said Elias Plishner, senior VP of digital media and marketing at Sony, speaking at midday session “The Social Marketing Revolution.”

The panelists acknowledged that actors with a big social footprint have a leg up when it comes to winning favor with marketers, who are now more involved in the moviemaking process than ever. Many now have “social amplification” duties written into their contracts.

But even as Hollywood gets on more solid footing with digital distribution, online content gains ground and social listening provides deeper reach and insight, maintaining an authentic voice — particularly to a generation that’s hypersensitive to phoniness — is still what’s most important, said filmmaker and afternoon keynote speaker Kevin Smith.

“The world is full of so much bullshit, so much spin, that to be truly revolutionary you have to be just a little bit more honest,” Smith said. “It’s connecting in a real way. The audience will always take you further than the people in power.”

Unless those people are in China, where a “sandstorm of political change is brewing, and no one knows where it’s going to land,” said William Yuan, chairman of Affinity Media Capital/Fortress Hill. Yuan said filmmakers eager to make Chinese co-productions need to be prepared to follow the letter of the law, truly collaborating with partners in China who can lend the booming country’s sensibilities to Hollywood-sized films.

Eric Mika, CEO of Magic Storm Entertainment, said it’s not up to Hollywood to come in and teach the Chinese how to do it; the brightest future lies in opening up the creative process as much as the financing component.

“Let’s not forget, there are brilliant filmmakers in China,” Mika said. “We need to come in and work with the best that China has to offer.”