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North American Fests Strengthen Biz Outreach

Aiding film sales is a win-win situation

The top North American film festivals are striking while the iron is hot, beefing up industry outreach during a post-recession sales boom that burnishes their profiles and even helps filmmakers make a few bucks.

The Toronto Fest, long a bastion of film deals, was the first to launch an industry office, in 1996. Sundance followed eight years later under then-fest director Geoffrey Gilmore, and now Tribeca, also under Gilmore, is making more industry overtures amid spiking sales. Only SXSW has yet to officially reach out to bizzers, but even that maverick festival is beginning to offer some love.

Sundance’s John Cooper has been facilitating industry sales for well over a decade. “After we premiered ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ in 1989, the festival became known as a place for the industry to find great independent films that could potentially do well theatrically,” says Cooper, who proposed the Sundance Industry Office back when he was the fest’s programming director and Sundance Institute’s creative development director. “Right now we’re looking to keep pace with the evolving landscape of independent film, specifically new opportunities for digital and self-distribution.” This is mainly happening through the recently added Artist Services program, where alumni can retain their film’s rights and access numerous digital platform deals.

Sundance’s key hire to head the office in 2007 was then-fest director Gilmore’s assistant, Rosie Wong. As SIO’s senior manager, she’s expanded the office from a one-woman operation, adding a pair of staffers and growing an entity that served 800-900 industry execs with passes and select P&I screenings to one that now provides passes for the roughly 1,300 execs that attend the fest. The office also began selling allotments of tickets to sales agents for public screening premieres. Last year, the SIO added online service Festival Scope, and this year partnered with another such service, Cinando, to screen movies for buyers.

“We have a finite number of passes we can sell each year,” Wong says. “We don’t have as many theaters as Cannes or Toronto, and every year demand exceeds supply, so I have to be smart about who we bring in to the office and how much to grow it.”

To this end, Wong recently added Ticket Package Plus, a more affordable half-festival combo of tickets and P&I screening access. She hopes to add a third staffer next year and eventually eliminate her March to mid-June hiatus, expanding the office to year-round operations that help more Sundance artists.

Wong’s efforts have helped around 40 titles from 2013 land distribution deals so far, on track to match last year’s 60-odd sales.

The Toronto festival’s industry office has made some aggressive moves to attract the film biz since artistic director Cameron Bailey came aboard in 2008, and Justin Cutler took the reins of the industry office in 2010. This past fall, they created a Buyers Lounge next to their P&I screenings site for execs to talk business privately, and brought in out-of-competition sales screenings by offering sellers 50 slots at two onsite theaters to show their wares — the so-called “gray market.”

Bailey says the real growth of film sales recently has been in territories outside North America. “We want Toronto to become as important to the film business in Asia, in Latin America and in Eastern Europe as it has become in the U.S.,” he says.

Cutler notes that the fest had a 40% increase in its Asian delegate base from 2011 to 2012. “Our focus over the past three years is to extend our brand globally and through professional development,” he says, through new year-round industry initiatives, including a program promoting producers abroad and another geared to children’s fare.

The 2012 fest attracted 4,290 industry attendees (including 1,631 buyers), a 44% jump from recession-hit 2009. Though it doesn’t have an official sister market like the Berlinale’s EFM or AFI Fest’s AFM, and there are no plans to create one, business is booming, with 43 official selection sales announced in the heat of last September’s festival, and many more afterwards.

The Tribeca Film Festival (under the direction of Tribeca Enterprises chief creative officer Gilmore, Tribeca programming director Genna Terranova and artistic director Frederic Boyer) also has its eye on expanding international sales. “There are fewer (Tribeca) films that don’t have representation,” says Terranova, who draws on her previous career as a Weinstein Co. buyer to oversee the industry office. “One of the things Frederic and I did a lot this year (was) talk to foreign sales agents, and a lot of films are coming in with foreign sales agents attached. They’re offering us more films because they can premiere in New York, get the buzz right before Cannes, and then show them to international buyers later.”

Gilmore says the festival is talking with filmmakers about “everything from how to work with sellers to how to position a film at a festival to the best theaters in which to place the film.”

As at SXSW, most Tribeca films sell after the festival (and to a mix of theatrical, video and digital distribs, including the fest’s day-and-date sister outfit Tribeca Film).

Thirty-seven films among Tribeca’s 67 available 2012 titles landed deals. Though world premiere sales have dropped from the 2007 indie boom high of 35, overall sales have remained steady, as has its industry attendance (around 1,000 registered).

Meanwhile, at SXSW, despite increased sales, fest producer Janet Pierson is hesitant to offer bizzers perks that create any “hierarchies.”

“We don’t have a sales & industry office, we don’t have a staff member who helps them, we don’t have industry badges or a ‘fast pass,’ ” Pierson says. “Even if we wanted (press & industry screenings), there’s not a convenient place to put them. We don’t have the personnel or infrastructure for them, and it’s not the personality of the event.”

Yet as SXSW’s indie tastes have gained commercial appeal and studios have upped their presence during Pierson’s five-year tenure at the fest, film sales have taken off. They’ve grown from around 10 pickups from top indie distribs in 2011 to 20-plus deals for 2012 entries, including more bidding wars with bigger distribs like Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and Weinstein Co. in the mix.

During this year’s fest, two opening weekend thrillers in the Midnighter section sold: E.L. Katz’s “Cheap Thrills” to Drafthouse Films and Snoot Entertainment, and Vincenzo Natali’s “Haunter” to IFC Midnight, plus the Sundance-preemed music doc “Muscle Shoals” to Magnolia and the horror comedy “Milo” to Magnet/Magnolia. This week, Magnolia also announced it nabbed rights to Joe Swanberg’s star-filled comedy “Drinking Buddies,” and Cinedigm picked up the 3D thriller “Static.”

The fest has taken a few baby steps this year — allowing industry members into the filmmakers’ lounge for an hour a day, adding a larger mentor program (“Meet the Insiders”), and creating more film-specific spots among music and interactive areas. And despite problems some buyers have had getting into past premieres, all the key biz players appear to be gaining access to hotter screenings ahead of long lines this year, according to sources on the ground.

“We are thrilled when business happens, and we’d love for it to thrive,” Pierson says, “but we’re just in the business of trying to get talent in front of audiences.”

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