Locarno: Sales Agent Pick-Ups, Expansion, Digital Drive Early Industry Agenda

Busy, but not-so-pressured, Locarno has carved out its own industry identity and importance

Locarno: Pick-Ups, Expansion, Digital Drive Early
Courtesy: Stray Dogs

LOCARNO, Switzerland — Memento Films Int., Films Boutique, Luxbox, Wide Management, Stray Dogs, and New Europe Film Sales have all swooped on titles in the run-up to the 70th Locarno Festival, Europe’s biggest mid-Summer film event, as two issues look set to dominate its early industry agenda: Further Locarno Fest overseas expansion, as festival reshape as year-long industry service and development orgs; the vast, multi-dimensional impact of digital disruption on traditional industry models, the subject on the table at Locarno’s annual Stepin, a think tank discussion forum, on Aug. 3.

Kicking off on Aug. 4 with the Gaumont’s “Tomorrow and Every Other Day,” directed France’s Noémie Lvovsky, Locarno runs through Aug. 12.

Of recently announced deals on Locarno movies, Memento Films Intl.’s Artscope has boarded Bulgarian Ilian Metev’s eagerly-awaited “3/4,” his follow-up to “Sofia’s Last Ambulance,” which won the France 4 Visionary Award at the 2012 Cannes Critics’ Week. Berlin-based Films Boutique will hit Locarno with two titles on its books: “Dog,” the latest from admired French auteur Samuel Benchetrit (“Macadam Stories”), and “A Skin So Soft,” from Canadian Locarno regular Denis Côté, on of this year’s most anticipated movies.

Nathan Fischer’s Stray Dogs has tied down sales rights to two Intl. Competition movies, Ben Russell’s deeply immersive and politically resonant docu feature “Good Luck,” and “The Asteroids,” a youth crime coming-of-age drama thriller from  Italian fiction feature debutant Germano Maccioni.

Paris’s Luxbox has acquired world sales rights to Dominican Nelson Carlo de los Santos ethically probing “Cocote,” winner this April of the IFF Panama’s Primera Mirada and featured one month later at the Cannes Film Market in a Panama Goes to Cannes special screening. New Europe Film Sales has taken worldwide rights to Denmark’s “Winter Brothers,” starring Lars Mikkelsen (“House Of Cards,” “Sherlock”). Dominik Locher’s “Goliath,” the only majority-Swiss film in main competition and another worrisome social portrait, has gone to Wide Management.

Such movies already suggest tentative trends among this year’s lineup and indeed contemporary filmmaking: films that question or challenge the male identity, a tendency highlighted by fest director Carlo Chatrian in interview; the meshing of coming-of-age narrative and genre, in “The Asteroids” and Brazilian Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s “Good Manners” – a mix which allows movies to speak to far broader audiences, maybe in theatrical, certainly in digital.

Several other films being taken off the table before Locarno’s Industry Days kicks off this Friday Aug.4. Dealing on Locarno titles means that only six of the 32 movies to unspool in Locarno’s centerpiece Piazza Grande and International Competition sections will do so without a sales agent on board.   That, however, is hardly surprising. Headed by The Match Factory’s Michael Weber and Pyramide Intl.’s Eric Lagesse, two deacons of Europe’s arthouse (and sometimes crossover) scene, Locarno packs an extraordinarily large industry presence for an event that takes place in the dog days of August in Europe, a continent which take its vacations seriously.

Accredited attendance at Locarno’s Industry Days was tracking at 1,077 on July 31, vs.1,105 at the end of last year’s festival, according to Nadia Dresti, Locarno deputy artistic director and head of international.

But then, few big festivals pack as many industry initiatives into just three days (with Open Doors and the Locarno Industry Academy running longer).

This can be put down to an industry policy to grow different initiative strands addressing key needs in a challenged international arthouse business. In 2011, Locarno added both Stepin, whose project manager is Marcello Paollilo, a think-tank discussion forum for urgent industry issues, and First Look, a showcase for five-to-seven pix-in-post from an emerging market. This is not an exercise in charity. Many regions in there world remain undiscovered by most press and professionals; talent, as a Hollywood agent will tell you these days, can come from anywhere.

For First Look, the large industry attendance is key. “Nobody can be sure, especially these days, to sell a film. But we can assure that the films will be seen by buyers, festival programmers and other professionals in town, as well as by a high profile jury,” Dresti said.

The Locarno Industry Academy, a training workshop led by Marion Klotz for young industry execs that has now celebrated international versions at Mexico’s Morelia, in Brazil and at New York’s Lincoln Center, celebrates its third edition. A pilot project in 2015, Alliance for Development, a France-Germany-Italy co-production Rendez-vous managed by Lucas Rosan, launched officially last year.

Up-and running from 2001, Open Doors, an emerging market co-production forum and networking event focusing for the second of three years on South Asia, is overseen by Sophie Bourdon.

“Before, I was doing everything. It was really complicated to drill deep down on an activity when at the same time you had the rest of the festival,” said Dresti.

Launched in 2015, and organized like First Look by Markus Duffner, Match Me!, a networking forum for young production houses, joins the strands, luring industry figures into its carefully meticulously curated lunches with young producers, where nothing is left to chance, down to table placements.

“This is like a family dream come true. Things are moving on and the whole thing make sense,” said Dresti.

Once a one-off summer event, Locarno’s partnerships now run throughout the year. And it is constantly adding to its all-year-round agenda. A new Fundación Casa Wabi-Mantarraya Award, for instance, will prize one director in Locarno’s Signs of Life section, for instance, with a three-month artists’ residency at Casa Wabi, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

Open Doors is offering two new prizes: an Open Doors to Development-Initiative Film Grant consisting of a six-month follow-up, with an analytic reading of the script, Skype consultancy meetings; the Open Doors-Torino Film Lab Award, comprising an invitation to the 10th TFL Meeting Event in Torino, which runs Nov. 24-25, and inclusion in the TFL Up and Coming Label.

Also, Open Doors will launch a program of initiatives in South Asia over fall/winter 2017/18, including a a 4-day development workshop in Yangon with the Myanmar Script Fund, associated to the Memory! International Film Heritage Festival; and another workshop at the Ekadeshma Short Film Festival in Kathmandu in mid-November. It is in discussion for equivalent events in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, said Sophie Bourdon, who runs Open Doors.

Most industry discussions in Europe are producer-lead and worry about threats to funding. At Locarno, however, it is the distribution, Europe’s industry missing link, which takes central stage.

The students at the Locarno Industry Academy, which also looks set to announce a new expansive move beyond Switzerland, are distribution and exhibition executives.

Many of the meetings being set up for co-produced projects in development phase at the Alliance for Development are with sales agents, Dresti said.

In 2017, moreover, Stepin takes a very big distribution bull by the horns:  the future of arthouse cinema in the age of global streaming platforms – read Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, with Apple and Facebook on the horizon.

This is not a witch hunt. On all but the biggest or breakout art films, which can still look for a territory-by-territory theatrical roll-out, digital forms part of a new distribution mix for sales agents of select territory theatrical releases, then sales to pay TV or VOD platforms. In South Asia, the focus of Open Doors over 2016-18, digital has proved an innervating impulse.

There has been “a rebirth of cinema with a young generation who is seizing the opportunity of new technology – internet and digital – to have a bit more access to foreign cinema, foreign contacts, equipment/digital cameras to make films,” said Bourdon.

But Stepin comes as Netflix is putting through a massive capital expenditure in programming, $4.2 billion in first half of 2017, as it advances towards its goal of a library of 50% original content. Considering its impact goes beyond festival policy on Netflix Originals.

Netflix launched video streaming in the U.S. in 2007, but in France and Germany only in 2014, and in Spain and Italy a year later. Given that, it is natural this year’s think-tank should have a notable U.S. speciality industry presence: Focus Features president Robert Walack, Bobby Allen, VP of Content at Mubi, a meticulously curated VOD service, and Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse CEO. will lead an opening keynote.

Also based out of Austin, Texas, Janet Pierson, South by Southwest Festival Film Head will be on hand, as will Swiss producer Michel Merkt (“Elle,” “My Life as a Zucchini”), recipient of this year’s independent producer Raimondo Rezzonico Prize at Locarno, following on David Linde in 2016.

There are large subjects on the agenda. State-funded film agencies tend to insist that films they fund have a theatrical opening in their territories. One large question is how pan-European funds may react to financing films which do not screen in theaters at all.

Another question is strategies single territory international distributors can pursue as Netflix, Amazon et al. sweep up the whole or most of the globe on key top-talent art films.

No other festival sees top-tier industry executives sitting down together for a whole day in a collegiate atmosphere to thrash out responses to the biggest factors driving their business. Some are prepared to come a long way to attend, such as  former Protagonist Pictures CEO Mike Goodridge, Macao Festival artistic director from June. Here, the Locarno Festival, like other successful events, has pulled off one of the most difficult achievements in a crowded festival sector: a sense of unique – and appealing – industry identity. Not all high-profile festivals can say the same.