The Locarno Film Festival has recruited prominent French indie producer Rita Dagher along with Amazon Studios’ former head of distribution Bob Berney, and CAA agent Maren Olson as keynote speakers for its annual StepIn think tank, which will thrash out some of the most pressing issues preoccupying the independent film community.
“What Are We Afraid Of?” is the overall theme — following “Brave New World” last year — of this year’s sessions of the informal initiative. It will see 40-plus mostly European key players convene to share experiences and exchange thoughts for practical solutions and strategies to contend with the challenges posed by streaming platforms and the digital era at large.
The biggest underlying fear is “whether independent filmmaking will continue to be relevant in the future, both as an art form and as entertainment,” as StepIn project manager Marcello Paolillo puts it. “What does the future hold for production and theatrical distribution of independent product, especially foreign-language films?,” he asks.
“Producers have to be very vigilant and very agile,” says Dagher, who adds that “finding the right home” for the “quirky and bold” projects that she likes to shepherd is becoming increasingly difficult. When the streaming giants arrived in France Dagher had high hopes, but now that she’s seen what they are producing she’s found “it’s not what we independent producers are proposing.” “They are just aiming to become the [next] big studios,” Dagher notes.
One big drawback with the business model imposed by current market constraints is that development money is very scarce, says Dagher. “In France producers rush through development because they need to produce quickly to pay their overhead, and so the films, even the comedies, are not that good,” she points out.
On the theatrical side “the bar is definitely getting higher in some ways to make a film stand out or become an event enough so that people get out there,” says Berney.
“But certainly it can happen,” he adds, citing Sundance standout “The Farewell,” which is enjoying a stellar July run at the U.S. box office via A24. “Sometimes what happens is there are two or three films that are soft and don’t work, and the whole [theatrical] thing is written off until another film comes and then things are back [on track].” “But it is challenging,” he adds.
Olson, who is also making the trek from L.A. to the prominent Swiss indie cinema event, will be talking about the increasingly important role talent agents have in the U.S. in packaging a film or TV production and how the landscape is changing worldwide with more European filmmakers working on overseas projects. The idea is to see how smartly using this segment of the value chain can help bolster indie filmmaking in Europe.
The topics of this year’s closed-door round-table sessions, which will generate a conclusive wrap-up, will be: “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.”