As the coronavirus pandemic forces global audiences into their homes and film and television production grinds to a halt, unsold independent films have become attractive options for distributors seeking fast content, numerous industry insiders tell Variety.
Streamers including Apple TV Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime and the major studios are showing renewed interest in finished films from festivals past, like January’s Sundance, as well as orphans from the canceled SXSW and postponed Tribeca film festivals, sources say.
Netflix is also in the game, according to one top sales agent speaking on the condition of anonymity, though it faces a unique roadblock: the amount of time and money it would take to dub acquired films in the languages of its 160 million global subscribers, which could be prohibitive in streaming those movies immediately.
Spokespeople for Apple, Hulu, Amazon and Netflix declined to comment on the matter, though many inside those com- panies say clarity will come by the end of March, when employees get used to working from home.
Sales agents at the big talent firms — CAA, WME, ICM and UTA — have been energized by the buyer interest in the past two weeks, not only to dust off their stock- pile of completed movies but also to get the work of their filmmakers in front of a nation trapped indoors.
Projects that immediately sprang to mind for buyers include Sara Colangelo’s “Worth,” starring Michael Keaton, a drama about dividing up the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which portrays an eerily timely story of Americans rallying in a national crisis; Dave Franco’s directorial debut, the horror-thriller “The Rental,” which screened for buyers in February at the Berlin Film Festival and co-stars his wife, Alison Brie; “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen,” a documentary from director-producer Sam Feder, producer Amy Scholder and executive producer Laverne Cox; and “I Used to Go Here,” a college dramedy that had been slated to debut at SXSW, starring Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement.
“A lot of distributor taste is shifting at this moment, and we’re hoping to take advantage of this to help our clients’ work get seen while people are captivated at home,” says another top indie sales executive.
That “taste” refers to a broad range of programming that streamers are suddenly in dire need of, from typical festival fare like narrative drama and hor- ror films to unscripted episodic and docu- mentary programs and broad, low-budget comedies.
One filmmaker told Variety that Netflix’s first-quarter original program- ming block for 2020 has been devoured in the past two weeks as companies across the nation have shut down, the president declared a national state of emergency and governors have issued shelter-in-place orders in states like California. Even the major studios, slavishly devoted to appeasing movie theater owners, broke ranks and rushed their theatrical movies to home entertain- ment platforms.
Universal Pictures was the first to blink, sending titles like “The Hunt,” “Emma” and “The Invisible Man” to the digital marketplace well ahead of the 90 days that theaters expect to have movies exclusively on their screens. Most significantly, Universal is bringing the ani- mated film “Trolls: World Tour” to VOD before it’s set to open in theaters on April 10 (assuming cineplexes are allowed to reopen by that time).
Warner Bros. quickly followed suit with the Margot Robbie vehicle “Birds of Prey” and Ben Affleck’s redemption pic “The Way Back.” Even the goliath that is Disney, acknowledging “challenging times” in its announcement, rushed blockbusters “Frozen II” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” to early streaming releases on Disney Plus.
The streamers aren’t exclusively gunning for festival darlings, sources say. The bigger players, known for deep pockets, are chasing the studio projects that have been pushed down the release calendar as COVID-19 has spread across the globe. The Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae comedy “The Lovebirds,” a Paramount Pictures and Media Rights Capital production, has already sold to Netflix and is expected to premiere in early summer, sources say.
One silver lining from Hollywood’s complete shutdown, a half-dozen agents say, is a renewed sense of collaboration. The notoriously competitive talent agencies banded together last week to create a virtual marketplace around the Cannes Film Festival. While the annual French celebration is considering a push to June, the agencies will have adigital home for their sales titles where buyers can screen movies and bid on them from the safety of their chaise lounges.
Creatives are thrilled by the notion of selling their work, not only for the economic benefits but also to provide sorely needed entertainment and fulfill the dreams dashed by corona- virus cancellations. “
Statistically speaking, more people got into Harvard than the SXSW Film Festival this year,” deadpans writer-director Justine Bateman, whose Oliva Munn and Justin Theroux film “Violet” was meant to premiere at the Austin, Texas, event. “Look, things come up. Certainly not of this magnitude, but it’s not like we’re in a steady 9-to-5 business. We’re adapters by nature in entertainment.”
Alice Gu’s documentary “The Donut King” was also meant to debut in Austin, and follows the inspirational story of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy, who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. Ngoy built a doughnut shop empire, empowering hundreds of other refugees in the process.
“We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows when they canceled the festival on March 6, but at that time we didn’t understand the [scope] of COVID-19,” Gu says. Gu, who makes her directorial debut on the documentary, is one of a tragically small group of female cinematographers.
“There has to be a reason for an event like this,” she says of the virus. “Maybe it’s people realizing how important they are to each other, or that we need less pollution. But this is my first film. We worked really hard, we’re really proud and we want it to get seen.”