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IFF Panama: Sundance Institute Reinforces its Global Reach

PANAMA CITY — Paul Federbush, international director, Sundance Feature Film Program, andLaura Michalchyshyn, at Sundance Productions, delivered a presentation at IFF Panama, moderated by Diana Sanchez, focusing on how the changing media landscape has created new opportunities for filmmakers, in particular in regions such as Latin America.

“I’m very interested in this part of the world and the talent here,” said Michalchyshyn.

The rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and new entrants such as Disney Plus and WarnerMedia has radically transformed the business, with a shift of the center of gravity from movies to TV series and with increasing potential for non-U.S. content to circulate internationally.

Federbush explained that this new environment was one of the factors that stimulated the Sundance Institute to reinforce its international strategy.

Both Federbush and Michalchyshyn underlined the potential of the Latin American market and Spanish-language films and series in particular, citing the fact that there are currently 44 Spanish-language series on Netflix.

The Sundance Institute recently organized a screenwriting lab during the Havana Film Festival, which had three-to-four projects, each with its own script consultant. A bigger story lab has also been organized since the 1990s in the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico, with a 50/50 split between scripted and documentary projects.

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“Latin America is such a huge region, we probably need to establish a couple of hubs here,” suggested Federbush. “We don’t have a hub in Panama right now, but filmmakers from here can attend our labs in Morelia, for example.”

The Sundance Institute has also reinforced its digital initiatives, including an online learning platform with episodic master classes, that are open to filmmakers around the world.

“We don’t just organize a lab and then forget you,” said Federbush. “If you attend the  screenwriting lab, you have subsequent online support and can go to directing, music or producing labs. We don’t give production grants, but we give momentum grants. You can come back to see us, cut after cut. We connect you with editing advisers.”

Latin American filmmakers who have attended Sundance labs include Mexican-El Salvador director Tatiana Huezo (“Tempestad”) and Chilean directors Marcela Said (“Los Perros”) and Francesca Alegria (“And the Whole Sky Fits in the Dead Cow’s Eye” – which won the Sundance 2017 Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction).

Michalchyshyn talked about her experience with platforms – such as Netflix, for her recent series “Bobby Kennedy for President,” and with HBO, for “Momentum Generation.”

“It’s one of the best times to be a creative. But it’s also terrifyingly difficult. The entry points aren’t easy,” she said, “Who do you phone at Netflix or Amazon? Even for me, it’s hard. The executives are changing every six months. It’s very difficult to keep track.”

Michalchyshyn underlined the importance of identifying executives responsible for specific regions in a platform such as Netflix – rather than trying to contact LA.

She also emphasized the importance of packaging, with A list talent in key positions or as executive producers. “Platforms like Netflix or Amazon don’t have the bandwidth in their teams to develop projects. They won’t spend money on developing scripts. You need to put together a complete package that they can greenlight.”

She explained that to pitch the $4 million “Bobby Kennedy” series to Netflix, she put together a five-minute trailer, a 35 page treatment and a detailed bible for a six hour series including the subject list and interviews. Netflix said it preferred a four-hour series, and then approved it, but with a 12-month deadline to complete everything, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.

“Netflix is a completely different mindset from the studios or cable channels. They need 150 hours of original programming every quarter. It’s a machine. They take all rights worldwide, no negotiation. They have buyers in the main territories for features and docs.”

The Sundance Institute has recently launched a TV series lab, sponsored by players such as HBO, Showtime, Netflix and Amazon and a Web series lab sponsored by YouTube.

“Movies have lost their prominence,” admitted Federbush. “Series are guiding the streamers. Movies are an afterthought. That’s disturbing for me, as a film snob. But I think for talent it can offer great opportunities.”

Notwithstanding the rise in importance of series, both executives emphasized the importance of using film festivals to create visibility.

Federbush nonetheless suggested that it can still be difficult for festival films to reach a broader audience, citing the example of Chilean 2018 foreign-language Oscar winner “A Fantastic Woman” which had a narrow arthouse release.

Budgeting for festivals and marketing is nonetheless vital. Michalchyshyn said that an independent feature should reserve at least $5,000 and that for “Bobby Kennedy” she had a $50,000 festival and PR spend.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, she cited the example of Netflix’s promotional spend on “Roma” during the Academy Awards. She estimated that the production budget was $15 million but the full promotional spend was around $75 million.

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