The recent controversy in Cannes over Netflix’s stringent theatrical release policy only scratched the surface of pressing issues the global indie film industry is facing as it scrambles to contend with the disruptive effect of giant streaming platforms.

Besides the perceived threat posed by Netflix to the theatrical experience, the big VOD players are prompting new production and distribution models, and raising a wide range of crucial questions. These will be thrashed out at the upcoming Locarno Film Festival’s StepIn initiative, which is positioning itself as the prime European forum to take this timely conversation to the next level.

The one-day event on Aug. 3 will explore the theatrical experience and the future of arthouse cinema in the age of global streaming and social networks. StepIn, organized in partnership with Variety, is conceived as a think tank “meant to spark new ideas, strategies, solutions and opportunities,” says Locarno deputy artistic director Nadia Dresti.

Focus Features president Robert Walak, Mubi VP of content Bobby Allen, Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League, Eurimages executive director Roberto Olla, SXSW festival director Janet Pierson, TrustNordisk head of sales Susan Wendt and Swiss producer Michel Merkt are among the roughly 60 prominent execs who, after a keynote conversation to get the ball rolling, will participate in workshops at five tables and present conclusions on topics that range from the future of the moviegoing experience, production and distribution to marketing movies in the social networks age and the role of film festivals in this new landscape.

“This panel will delve into how the scenario is changing from all different angles,” says StepIn project manager Marcello Paolillo. “It’s a positive message, instead of just sounding the death knell of theatrical.”

Walak, one the three keynote speakers, is concerned about the survival strategy of European arthouse distributors. “What I find really hard to see — though it does not affect Focus Features that much — is how do you survive being a single-territory distributor, or even having a basket of territories, versus what goes on when Amazon or Netflix can commit to buying a project,” he says.

He speaks from experience, having “bumped up against them a couple of times now,” recently on drama “Boy Erased,” to be directed by Joel Edgerton and produced by Anonymous Content, for which Focus landed worldwide rights in June. “It was a conversation about whether the film could have the same financial impact if it was on an SVOD platform versus being theatrically released.”

Which is why viability of the theatrical releasing engine is so key.

“I don’t think the sky is falling,” says League, another keynote speaker, whose Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, film distribution and production outfit is reinventing the production/distribution paradigm. League doesn’t think day-and-date SVOD releases make sense for producers. “The only people it makes sense for is Netflix because they have their goal in mind, which is building their subscriber with that exclusivity.” But he hopes the threat or perceived threat of theatrical experience erosion will push exhibitors “who have been relatively lazy, to upgrade with the latest technology and make sure the basics are done: the theater is clean, staff is cordial, the picture is bright and the sound is big and immersive.”

Allen, the third keynote speaker, says Mubi, which last year branched into theatrical distribution, still sees “a lot of [economic] mileage to investing in theatrical for all the value it can bring to all the ancillary windows. Even more importantly, the moviegoing experience remains a credo for true cinephiles, which is what the Mubi brand is all about.”
Pierson points out that SXSW was the first festival to have a simultaneous world premiere and VOD release in 2009 with Joe Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last,” via IFC. “There was a lot of talk then about, ‘is VOD going to kill festival attendance?’ but it didn’t.”

She makes a fitting analogy between moviegoing and romance: “Online dating hasn’t wiped out bars: people need to get out of their houses. They need the human connection.”