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At AFM, There’s a Small-Screen Boom for Indie Producers

For the first time in its 38-year history, the American Film Market is producing a conference about what was once considered taboo at the confab’s Loews Santa Monica digs: television. The Nov. 11 event will address how indie filmmakers can cash in on the tidal wave of new streaming services — Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Quibi, Peacock, AMC Theatres on Demand and more — and cable outlets investing billions of dollars to produce and acquire films.

Variety spoke with Anthony Bregman of Likely Story, which has a first-look production deal with Netflix; Brad Feinstein of Romulus Entertainment, a producer of Apple TV Plus’ first big feature, “The Banker”; attorney Elsa Ramo; and other industry vets to find out what streamers are looking for, how producers can get in the door and how this new paradigm is impacting indies.

“We’re looking to triple our output,” says Disney Channel VP of original movies Lauren Kisilevsky, who’s overseeing a slate of Disney Plus features along with films that will migrate there from her pay cable outlet. Similar to Lucasfilm and other Disney divisions, Disney Channel is producing several films for the streamer in-house. Kisilevsky will speak to producers after the Nov. 11 AFM panel Made-for-TV Movies: Expanding Opportunities for Independent Filmmakers.

“We’re continuing to invest in large-scale, VFX-heavy franchises [and] films that are cinematic with high-production values, but we’re also exploring a large number of lower-budget, more contained movies” that are often more grounded and comedic, she says.

The channel’s target demographic — girls age 6-11 — remains the same for Disney Plus films, but it is looking for grown-up actors “who are a bit more recognizable to adult consumers” on the new platform. So far, only one Disney Channel-produced feature — “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals,” now in post-production — has been set to bow on Disney Plus, which launches Nov. 12 with family films like “Noelle” and a “Lady and the Tramp” remake.

One of the first glimpses into Apple TV Plus’ film strategy is “The Banker,” which opens theatrically Dec. 6 before debuting on the service on Jan. 31. Producer-financier Romulus Entertainment (2018’s “Driven”) showed footage to generate presales at last year’s AFM before Apple stepped in and swept up worldwide rights to the completed film this summer, founder Feinstein says.

“They’ve been great partners, and made sure we’ve had pretty much everything we’ve wanted — from post-production to a good publicity team — as we head into awards season.”

Apple brought Bleecker Street aboard for a theatrical rollout “as wide as there is interest for the film,” he adds. “Obviously, with a streaming release, there are some inherent limitations with windowing, but the fact that they’re giving us a theatrical run says a lot. They didn’t necessarily have to do that.”

The film, starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, will close the AFI Fest Nov. 21.

Feinstein says he’s now in talks with SVOD platforms about releasing more of his completed and in-development features. “With a lot of distributors for independent films going under, you almost have to find a streamer in order to get them out, and [“The Banker” theatrical run offers] the best of both worlds.”

Likely Story’s Bregman tells a similar tale that began with his 2016 musical “Sing Street.” “It had incredible reviews, exit polls and word-of-mouth across the board, yet it didn’t perform at the box office,” he says. “And then we found out it was a massive hit on streaming services.”

After two of his films (“The Land of Steady Habits” and “Private Life”) that were stuck at specialty divisions over casting and budget issues got fully financed by Netflix, he signed a first-look deal with the streamer, which is now producing three of his seven features. Deciding which distributor to go with “is a tricky thing — it’s a feel, and it’s also who’s biting,” but he finds the outlet very producer-friendly.

“Netflix is so active and hungry for material that it feels like there’s less clubbiness about it than in some of the other financing/distribution setups in the business.”

Motion Picture Corp. of America founder Brad Krevoy, who’s produced dozens of cable and theatrical movies as well as the just-released Netflix film “Holiday in the Wild” with Rob Lowe and Kristin Davis, will advise his fellow producers on the right place to pitch projects at the Nov. 11 television conference.

“Look at the demos each of the cable networks with advertising are trying to target — that will tell you the kind of programming they’ll end up doing,” he says. “Hallmark Channel just launched [the SVOD service] Hallmark Movies Now, but they’re being consistent with what they’re offering customers in the cable space. Most streamers are subscription-based and try to appeal to everyone, so they may have a broader bandwidth to try different things.”

Entertainment industry veteran John Zois, executive vice president of acquisitions and co-productions at Anton, has spoken with almost all of the new streaming services. “I think Apple is looking for films that they can promote as events, maybe across platforms that they control,” he says. “HBO Max still seems to be in the formulation phase — they’re buying things that are more high-profile, like the Soderbergh [film ‘Let Them All Talk’ with Meryl Streep], but I think their buys will be broader and they’ll be doing a lot more. Quibi has high-profile projects, but they’re also doing smaller, more obscure things and paying good prices for them.”

Ramo Law PC managing partner Elsa Ramo has a good global perspective on budgets and content that’s selling. She’s now seeing a lot of made-for-TV and SVOD films in the $1 million-$3 million range and — if they have the right talent — the $10 million-$15 million range. Hot sellers include family-friendly content and rom-coms with name cast, “and I have clients that make Christmas movies all day long.”

The streamer model is having a major impact on traditional indie financing. “It’s a lot easier to have an SVOD platform commit to the full budget, versus how independent films were made at AFM even five years ago, where you reverse-engineered it based on presales and equity and tax credits, cobbling together what you think the budget is, based on this unknown variable of what is the domestic market going to pay that’s been shrinking year after year,” Ramo says.

“Usually there’s no back end [in TV deals], or it’s very hard to obtain,” she adds. “So there may not even be the necessity of equity financing. The benefit of these made-for-TV movies is there is some protectability in giving a producer at least a bird in the hand in terms of compensation they know that they can rely on.”

How will this affect film financing and AFM dealmaking in the near future? “I think it’s going in the direction that there will be no rights left on the table, and that will be to the detriment of producers,” Ramo says. “Depending on how these SVOD platforms perform in the next six to nine months, we could go back in the realm of them getting a first-window right, and the producer being able to exploit secondary windows or untapped territories … but I think the strategies by which all of the unlaunched platforms are buying is going to significantly change and modify once they’re live. That’s the cliff that we’re all jumping off together, and nobody really knows.”

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