If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that nothing is certain — and that’s never been truer in the film business. Variety spoke with five industry leaders at AFM — Megan Colligan, Cécile Gaget, Mark Gill, Franklin Leonard and Celine Rattray — to get their predictions and hopes for how things will unfold in the first quarter of 2021 and 2022.
The former worldwide president of marketing and distribution at Paramount Pictures is president of Imax Entertainment and executive VP of Imax Corp.
“Many studios are developing streaming platforms [to reduce] a reliance on classic windowing strategies. That’s really disruptive in terms of how they think about the post-theatrical ancillary marketplace. I think the first quarter of 2021 will bring some experimentation, as we will still likely be emerging from the pandemic. That will allow for creativity and not having to commit to one model or another. [But] we’re going to need to be supportive of theaters as they’re opening.
“Toho and Aniplex released ‘Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train’ [on Oct. 16] — it was our biggest Imax weekend in Japan of all time. It shows that people are anxious to be in movie theaters where there’s event cinema and where it’s safe.
“What’s incredible with the schedule next year, [or] when we’re through all of this, is that you’re going to have blockbuster after block-
buster. So thinking about how to draw audiences and distinguish your film is going to be the name of the game — to make events out of those moments. It would be insane to think we’ll be coming out of this after a year as the same business we were when this all started.
“I think people are going to want to feel like they’re going to far away, immersive, exciting places with the comfort of being relatively safe and close to home. Our exhibition partners have invested millions of dollars in filtration systems and increased protocols in the U.S. through NATO’s CinemaSafe program. This is going to be a very fluid situation for some amount of time. Hopefully we’ll start to develop better policy, we’ll get a vaccine and we’ll begin to get a handle on everything. This will not last forever, even though some days it feels like it will.”
The former head of international production and distribution at Gaumont is the president of international production and distribution at Anton. The Europe-based company produced and financed the hit “Greenland” (pictured) and Searchlight’s Sundance pickup “The Night House.” Anton will debut the first footage from the animated film “Fireheart” at AFM.
“It’s not going to be easy to package films next year, especially U.S. indies. Casting will be very competitive and specific locations, crew and studios are going to be very busy. Europe may be a bit easier in that regard. Shooting has restarted here, and there are COVID insurance policies in some territories.
“On the positive side, there’s still a big appetite for projects among independent distributors. I had a conversation with a major European producer/distributor [who said], ‘Can we come on board early with you as an equity partner and pre-buy, because we don’t have access to all the materials we used to get.’ There’s a big opportunity for Anton as a bridge between Europe and the U.S.
“There will be more of a focus on Europe for creative talent. Regulations will start to apply in Europe next year, [forcing] all the streamers to negotiate with local authorities towards reinvesting 25%-30% of their local turnover into local content. This will also drive the guilds and unions to push for a new-media chronology, especially in France, where SVOD can’t start before 36 months after the theatrical release, which no longer really works.
“[Pre-sales are more of] a bet in this environment of COVID. But I think with the right package, a clear target audience, an A-list cast and the right budget, the presale model can still prevail. Independents need projects for their 2022 slate.
“I hear there’s a 40%-50% drop in minimum guarantees for European films. Companies are struggling and want to keep buying with less risk, but it doesn’t mean things won’t go back to normal soon.”
The former president of Warner Independent Pictures, Miramax Films and Millennium Films is president and CEO of indie producer/distrib Solstice Studios. Its summer thriller “Unhinged” was the first wide domestic release since the start of the pandemic.
Solstice is selling international rights to the drama “Good Joe Bell,” an awards-season hopeful it picked up for a reported $20 million in Toronto.
“I wish I was in South Korea [laughter]. It’s a tale of two worlds, isn’t it? Asia looks reasonably promising, the rest of the world looks deeply troubled, and winter doesn’t look like it’s going to be helpful. We’re developing and putting movies together in the hope that by the second quarter of next year, it’ll be easier to film them. Home entertainment looks fairly robust. Otherwise, it’s sort of a day at a time. If you had said to me [in early October] that Italy would be closing its cinemas [Oct. 26], I would not have been prepared to agree with you, but it just happened.
“I’m much more optimistic in the longer term. Sooner or later, some form of vaccine or better therapeutics will cause the West to be doing as well as Asia is now. This idea that the doomsdayers have that this is the death knell of theaters … I’ve heard that one about seven times before and it’s still not true. People need to get out of the house. The dirtiest words in the English language to me are ‘the couch.’
“The biggest crisis in independent production now is: How do you afford to make a movie when you’ve got an additional 15% in [safety-related] costs, at a time when everything is tightening? It will depend on whether you have to buy insurance that the private equity people have on the market. Let’s say you can either self-insure or have another way around it, which we do. Then it’s about a 5% increase in the budget. But if you have to buy the so-called COVID insurance, it’s an additional 10%. It’s insane. All insurance is usually less than 1% of the budget.
“Obviously a lot of the major studios are pivoting toward a hybrid model: some movies for streaming and some for theaters. That was already underway — COVID just accelerated it. I believe that means there will be fewer movies in theaters, so each film will have a bit more time finding an audience. In the long run, we’re committed to theatrical.
“I think for the short term, surviving is the new winning. You just have to get through this tough period.”
The founder of the unfilmed screenplay bible the Black List is producing the drama-comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” (out in January) and an upcoming feature in London.
“First and foremost, I hope for the health and safety of my colleagues, and that we can allow as many people to continue to work in as safe an environment as possible. Writers are one of the few groups who can continue to do what they do right now at home, so I’m hopeful that we’ll see a ton of new, extraordinary material that tries to reckon with the moment in human history that we find ourselves in. Obviously there’s a substantial financial impact on writers in this time of great uncertainty. Hopefully the industry will need a lot more material now, so perhaps writers will get better compensation than they otherwise would because people can finally turn their focus to exceptional work.
“I also hope, in the middle of this racial reckoning we’re going through, that people are starting to take a second and third look at the work of Black writers specifically, and writers of color in general. And if members of the industry are rational actors looking at the information and data that they have available to them, being confronted with the reality that the industry has historically undervalued writers’ work, it should happen. But history has shown that [this is very unlikely, so] I’ll remain skeptical until I see evidence of long-term change.
“My biggest concern, and my biggest hope for a year from now, is that the industry begins to reckon with the extent to which it is responsible for the moment in which we find ourselves. By undervaluing the work of women and people of color, by perpetuating white supremacist myths [going back to the first Hollywood blockbuster, “The Birth of a Nation”] and continuing to underrepresent the diversity of the U.S. and the world in images that are piped into every hand, home and theater, we have created the perceptions and biases that have resulted in the moment in which we find ourselves.
The industry needs to begin to grapple with that reality if it has any hope to chart a path forward wherein it remains relevant. And I hope that we as an industry, rather than prioritizing self-protection, can focus on a communitarian impulse. The industry doesn’t have the best track record for financially compensating all the people lowest on the totem pole. It’s my hope that those who have a lot will bear a greater sacrifice than those who don’t have as much.”
The co-founder of film, TV and digital content company Maven Screen Media is the producer of the upcoming “Silent Night” with Keira Knightley.
“One short-term priority for our existing and new projects: Is it COVID-friendly? Is this a production that’s easy to mount, can it be shot somewhere easy and can the budget withstand COVID-related costs — around 20%-30% [of the budget]. We have a few projects that have already been fast-tracked — one is a movie with one woman at the top of a mountain for the majority of the film.
“We want to make movies with strong social messages that support women and diverse voices. This last year has shown that we’re in an environmental crisis, and the pandemic has really highlighted social inequality. We also think about escapism: Can our pieces have humor and an interesting backdrop, and what other ways can we pull people out of the difficulties in their lives right now? We’re launching a TV division, so a high priority is hiring the right exec to run it and building a television slate.
“My sense is that none of the theatrical distributors are looking for products to release ahead of this summer. I don’t think that I can predict what the world will look like in a year. There’s a lot that’s shooting right now, but a lot of productions have to shut down, for three days or two weeks. I’m planning to film in upstate New York early next year, and if that’s not possible, I need to be prepared to shoot in Australia or Europe. My job is to be safe, nimble and adapt in the smartest possible way.”