The American Film Market is caught in a whirlwind of industry forces that are changing how film sales are done. Digital platforms are taking some top projects off the table, new ventures including Endeavor Content are helping finance sales companies’ transformation into producers, and online dealmaking and fests such as Toronto are turning film buying into a 365-day-a-year business that could become far less dependent on markets or sales agents.
“Netflix and Amazon are now in the business of creating their own content and delivering it directly to the consumer — and there will be others, like Google and Facebook — [that won’t need] companies like ours to act as a conduit between producers and distributors, so the middleman is being squeezed out,” says Mister Smith Entertainment CEO David Garrett. “The only way for companies like mine, the FilmNations and the IM Globals of this world to maintain leverage is by developing, producing and owning our own content and IP.”
Thorsten Schumacher, former HanWay Films managing director and Rocket Science founder, agrees. “We started up as a sales agency because it seemed like the most efficient way to launch a brand, and I think we’ve achieved that in the first year,” he says. “But we are all aware that this cannot be the business model in the long term — that was just the catalyst. Our actual business model has already expanded into production and financing and development.”
WME and IMG’s film and scripted TV finance and sales groups recently merged into Endeavor Content, led by co-presidents and WME partners Graham Taylor and Chris Rice. It’s now one of the main outfits (alongside CAA and others) connecting sellers with hedge funds, high-net-worth individuals and other sources to help sales companies expand.
“We’re working to help artists, producers and financiers build their businesses so that they can own and control more of their content, and then sell directly to networks and distributors globally,” Taylor says.
And at the same time, Endeavor Content is becoming a bigger international player on its own, partly evidenced by WME/IMG’s acquisition of a majority stake in film finance and sales company Bloom.
“We oversee a gigantic sales force and have the ability to sell in every window in 190-plus countries directly,” Taylor says. “That’s a big reason why we’ve continued to grow and evolve and reorganize. You have to have a bespoke solution for how to navigate and optimize content and exploit distribution rights, window by window, country by country.”
IM Global founder Stuart Ford, who was forced out of his company this summer over reported disagreements with his board and parent company Tang Media Partners, may be founding one of these next-wave entertainment outfits. He’s rumored to be quickly assembling a cutting-edge content and licensing venture with a circle of industry backers.
“To my mind, the future lies with content companies who can handle their own licensing, not with sales companies who dabble in production,” Ford says.
Glen Basner moved his FilmNation into production several years ago with reasonably budgeted hits, including “Room” and “The Big Sick.” With roughly a third to half of his annual slate taken up by his own productions, he seems prepared for the future.
“I don’t think that the model simply has to change,” Basner says. “I think every distributor has to have a multitude of models they can work within.”
Right now, many in overseas sales and distribution are bracing themselves for Amazon Studios’ next big moves. In his first official interview, the company’s head of international distribution and strategic initiatives Matt Newman outlines “the beginnings” of his five-member team: he recently hired FilmNation exec Tara Erer as senior manager of international distribution to oversee day-to-day operations.
“We have a Prime Video service in over 200 countries, and so inevitably there’s more complexity in the way that we distribute and sell our movies,” he says. “Tara’s focus is really on managing that complexity.”
Under their system, Amazon sells all rights to local theatrical distributors and agrees to license back the rights at market rates based on their movies’ performance at the local box office, “which ensures each local distributor is bidding for our movies based on the same terms, regardless of whether they have a pay TV output deal,” Newman says, adding that that they’ll “continue to use FilmNation in the foreseeable future as our sales agent, or other agents in a case-by-case basis, the next stage would be to manage all of it directly in-house, [though] we don’t have any current plans to do that.”
Also of note for overseas theatrical distribs: as with its domestic releases, Amazon “plans to keep embracing the theatrical window on our original movies. That’s a worldwide mandate,” Newman says. “We’ve often worked the same distributors, so it’s kind of a natural extension for us to start putting together what would be a distribution network with those same partners, where they would have all of our movies on a going-forward basis. We are definitely in those discussions, and absolutely prefer having those kind of long-term relationships where we can.”
Newman and his team met with foreign distributors in Toronto and plan to meet with more at AFM. An Amazon Studios spokesperson says the recent departures of company head Roy Price and execs Joe Lewis and Conrad Riggs won’t affect his division’s plans.
With its lack of interest in theatrical, Netflix represents a bigger challenge to overseas distributors. The company just announced that it will spend up to $8 billion on original content in 2018, up from around $6 billion this year, including about 80 original movies. And in a landmark move, Netflix reportedly put up more than half the $30 million budget for New Line’s “Shaft” reboot in exchange for international rights and the ability to stream it overseas two weeks after its U.S. theatrical debut. According to sales experts, it’s the streaming service’s first such foreign rights deal with a major studio title.
“I think everybody is realizing that Netflix and Amazon are here to stay, so you can either do business with them or get out of the way,” says IM Global international sales & distribution president Michael Rothstein.
Other digital platforms are stepping up their content game as well: Google’s YouTube Red nabbed Morgan Spurlock’s doc “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” for $3.5 million in Toronto. Within the last few weeks, Apple wooed Amazon Studios head of international productions Morgan Wandell to be its head of international creative development, and hired former Channel 4 exec Jay Hunt as creative chief of its European video operations, part of its plan to spend $1 billion over the next year on at least 10 TV shows.
“In the short term, it’s really rattling international distributors, but in the long term it’s another wonderful element to monetize films,” says Arclight Films exec VP of sales and acquisitions Ruzanna Kegeyan. “International independent distributors haven’t yet begun monetizing these distribution outlets. They don’t know exactly what the lay of the land is. … Getting in early and knowing what they want is a good thing. [But digital platforms] are always going to be needing product outside of just what they’re producing.”
So what does all this mean for AFM and other markets? “I think there’ll be less and less reliance on markets, as the business is a 52-week-a-year business,” Taylor says. “A decade ago, things just fell into this idea of AFM and Berlin and Cannes, but I think what we see now is interesting IP plus interesting artists going to market every week.”
The AFM, led by managing director Jonathan Wolf and hosted by Independent Film & Television Alliance president Jean Prewitt, begs to differ. Prewitt notes that this year, “the numbers for AFM are trending up” over last year — including sellers, buyers and film screenings — “demonstrating the ongoing importance of being on-site with the rest of the world’s independent industry.”
Some, like FilmNation’s Basner, echo other sales agents’ concerns over Netflix’s siphoning top-tier overseas theatrical product. “When they’re making 80 movies, the bulk of those that may have been on offer internationally are no longer there because Netflix snatched them up,” he says.
But Wolf and Prewitt take a rosier view.
“While [Netflix and Amazon] add competition for some titles, those are a minor part of hundreds brought forward each year at the AFM by independent sales companies,” they said in a statement. “If there is a change, it is simply that they frequently take worldwide VOD rights but don’t buy or value theatrical or other release platforms, which means that even these titles do come to AFM or other markets in search of deals that have to be shaped differently to avoid conflicts as different rights are exploited.”
Yet one of the world’s top film distribution execs — Germany-based Constantin Film CEO Martin Moszkowicz — says he’s already seen the impact of digital platform sales, and it’s part of the reason he’s moving toward more local-language production and distribution.
“It’s not so much happening in the German-language market, where we have no competition yet from these platforms,” he says. “But on a worldwide level, absolutely. There are films the sales companies have announced, and then when the market comes, they’re gone.”