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Locarno StepIn: Five Takeaways On Big Data, Diversity, Theatrical, and Film Markets

Roughly 50 prominent European independent film industry execs assembled Thursday at the Locarno Festival’s annual StepIn think tank to discuss the challenges they face while contending with the disruption prompted by global streaming platforms.

But whereas last year the discussion was dominated by the upheaval in distribution and the future of theatrical, this edition of StepIn introduced the topic of how new technologies can prompt changes in how movies are conceived.  While the seismic shift is causing some indie filmmakers to proclaim that the film industry is “broken,” as one exec said in a closed-door session, there were also more upbeat considerations such as: “Producers already have a new role; that of curating content and projects to meet specific audiences,” as Eurimages Project Manager Susan Newman-Baudais noted presenting the conclusions of the round-table on “A New Era For Film Producers.”

The others StepIn sessions were on: “The Role of Film Markets in This New Landscape,” “The Theatrical Life of Independent Films,” and “Are Films Reflecting a Change in Society?” These are five takeaways that surfaced.

1.Big Data Is Good For Indies Too

During keynote speeches that preceded the round-tables, The Black List founder Franklin Leonard, who has long had the pulse of screenwriting coming out of Hollywood, talked about how algorithms and big data analytics have been key to Netflix breaking racial, sexual and gender stereotypes and barriers put up by the studios based on unfounded tenets such as: “female action movies don’t work.” Leonard noted that all producers should be using analytic tools to find ways to connect audience segments that may not be on their radar, which “doesn’t mean that you are feeding a script into a computer and getting an answer on whether or not the movie should be made.”  Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the Berlin Film Festival’s European Film Market, another StepIn keynote speaker, noted that the EFM is making efforts to make indie filmmakers more tech-savvy just as the classic co-production model is loosing some traction and companies diversify from, for example, being sales companies to becoming production and sales companies. Regarding data use, while Netflix may own the best algorithms, there are many types of analytics available even to tiny indies, one being piracy numbers, as producer and keynote speaker Diana Elbaum pointed out.

2. Diversity Is Good For Business

Elbaum recalled that when she pitched to financiers Moroccan-Belgian director Nabil Ben Yadir’s hit comedy “Les Barons,” about young Moroccans in present-day Brussels who loaf around town in a BMW, her prospective backers immediately objected that these characters would not have such a nice car unless it was stolen. She had to explain that each member of the group was proudly unemployed but owned only one-eighth of the shared vehicle. Then, when the movie got made, exhibitors were afraid to show the film for fear that their venues would get trashed. Still “Les Barons” managed to triumph. The StepIn session on films reflecting a change in society looked at “Wonder Woman” as a case study, and also at hit French doc “Tomorrow” by Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion, which has nothing to do with gender parity or diversity but is about how to avoid the end of humanity. “Films can make a difference and should make a difference,” noted Teodora Films head of acquisitions Margerita Chiti. And they can also make money while doing that. 

3. The Paradox In Believing in ‘The Primacy of Theatrical’

Chris Anderson, a top exec at piracy consultancy MUSO who took notes at the session on theatrical, said there was a lot of insistence among producers on maintaining the theatrical experience. But at the same time “The relationship between the distributor and the exhibitor is too dysfunctional,” at a time when “curation is the new distribution.” What surfaced at the session on production is that “though producers have already started to be much more diverse in what they are producing, they will need to continue to diversify, despite the continued belief in the primacy of theatrical,” Newman-Baudais said. The producers at StepIn acknowledged “the paradoxical nature” of  a situation in which they are calling for a renewal of the theatrical experience, “while realizing that increasingly their new production model is one of producing content not intended for theatrical exploitation.”

4. Do We Still Need Film Markets? 

The short answer is: Yes. Though this might change when “millennials become the decision-makers,” said Protagonist Pictures’ head of sales Vanessa Saal. One big change underway at film markets is that the number of producers flocking to them is rising. This year producers made up 30% of attendees at the EFM and 40% of those at the Cannes Film Market.

5. Yes, But The AFM May Be Loosing Lustre 

“Film markets and film festivals aren’t the same thing,” noted Saal. Who added: “it seems like today the most successful markets are the ones that tie in to the most successful festivals, such as  Cannes and Berlin.” She mentioned a discussion about the future of the AFM at the session on the future of film markets and pointed out that: “For many of us the AFM has become a very depressed market because you don’t have the excitement of a festival going alongside it.” 



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