Locarno StepIn: Agility Is Key to Counter Streamers’ Onslaught

As streaming giants continue to upend the global film business scenario it’s getting tougher for indie cinema to survive, both as an art form and as entertainment. But smart new strategies are being devised to mount productions that stay true to the indie ethos, and the thrill of theatrical isn’t gone yet.

In broad terms those were the main takeaways from the Locarno fest’s unique StepIn think tank, where the overall theme was “What Are We Afraid Of?” and 40-plus mostly European indie players convened to share experiences and exchange thoughts for practical solutions to navigate the onslaught of streaming platforms and the digital era at large. 

“Agility” emerged as the keyword during the opening session when French producer Rita Dagher, one of the three keynote speakers, recounted how she packaged Jean-Stephane Sauvaire-directed “A Prayer Before Dawn,” which she described as a mix of: “French director, English material, and American money,” packaged by CAA thanks to James Schamus.

A novelty this year was that project director Marcello Paolillo dedicated attention to the role talent agencies can play, particularly the U.S. ones at the moment, in bringing more offbeat projects, albeit ones with commercial prospects, to the screen. Especially the big screen.

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CAA agent Maren Olson, also a keynote speaker, said she is increasingly looking at projects with a European component due to the resulting built-in soft money that can be combined with U.S. equity.

“What we are trying to do is create relationships globally that can add to more agility for the filmmaking community,” she said. This can help keep a “creative system afloat where each individual filmmaker and filmmaking team can tell the story they want to tell, with resources to get it made and places for it to be exhibited,” Olson noted.

On the crucial subject of exhibition, Amazon Studios’ former head of distribution Bob Berney, who was the third keynote, pointed out that whereas just two years ago movie deals had a “very strong theatrical commitment, when you’re either buying rights or investing,” this is “turning into a much more grey, open-ended area now.”

But the market is still in flux and indies can try to use talent leverage to shape it. Olson revealed that she’s had instances where directors have said that theatrical is an important enough point for them that they will take less money to go theatrical. “And so Netflix has had to react to that,” she noted. “It goes back to the power of the creators and the power of the creatives,” she said.

The topics of this year’s closed-door round-table sessions were: “The Shape of Independent Cinema: Facing Changes in Formats and Financing,” “The Box-Office Puzzle: Is the Theatrical Experience Struggling or Thriving?,” “European Film Promotion: Strategies and Ideas on How to Promote Foreign Language Films Worldwide,” and “The Role of Talent Agencies: The Ultimate Gatekeepers.”

Key considerations during the conclusive wrap-up comprised: the need for streamers to invest in development and more generally to put back a percentage of their revenue into local production; the increasingly crucial role of festivals as indie bastions, preservers and promoters; the importance of local movies in keeping the theatrical experience buoyant; the dominance of social media as the way to market movies; and the role of talent agents as “door openers” at a time when streamers are causing an overall talent crunch.

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