Indie World Scrambles to Put New Plans in Place Ahead of Virtual Film Markets in June

Jake McLaughlin and Kathy Bates
Bac Films

With the independent film world working through the pandemic crisis, filmmakers, sales agents and festivals are grappling with unorthodox solutions as they plan for a return to a new normal in the fall.

“I think the best thing about independents is their resilience and their creativity and their ability to be flexible with opportunity because they don’t have such established set tracks,” says Brian O’Shea, CEO of sales agency the Exchange. “They can move and adjust accordingly.”

The Cannes Marché du Film will bow a virtual market June 22-28, spurred by the major U.S. talent agencies, with sales agents and distributors signing on to participate in this unprecedented event.

But while the indie community and film festivals, which work hand-in-hand, are putting virtual screenings and markets into place, opinions vary on what the global film market will look like in the third and fourth quarters.

It’s “full steam ahead” at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, according to artistic director Cameron Bailey, although what that means even the organizers of North America’s largest annual film gathering can’t say with certainty, since there are so many unknowns in this fast-evolving pandemic. TIFF traditionally takes place in early September and the team is committed to delivering some form of the event on its original dates.

“Postponing is definitely not a possibility on the table right now,” says TIFF executive director and co-head Joana Vicente. “[Based on] everything that we are learning, things might get worse in October or November if there is a second wave.”

By sticking to its dates and thinking about contingency plans early, TIFF has positioned itself as the year’s de facto can’t-miss festival and market. Bailey says that studios and filmmakers eager to premiere their work remain highly motivated for their films to be considered.

“Everyone’s being really cooperative in making sure we get to see the films we need to see,” he says.

But Bailey is also realistic. “We are absolutely planning for a public festival and a strong industry component. We are going to follow what happens with public health guidelines, of course, and that will determine more. We hope that by the middle of June, say, we’ll be able to make a call [as to] which way we are leaning. But we will deliver a festival this year.”

But TIFF may have to cut costs, potentially shrinking the event — industry sources speculate the nearly 300-film lineup could shrink by as much as half — and look for money from the government and donors in order to achieve even a scaled down version.

“We’re already looking at a hybrid festival,” says Vicente. There will “definitely” be a digital component of the upcoming edition. “How big that digital component is and what it looks like, we’re still working on that.”

Indeed, on April 27, YouTube and Tribeca Enterprises, which operates the Tribeca Film Festival, announced the We Are One festival, a 10-day streaming event, with some 20 global fests participating, including Toronto, Cannes, Venice and of course Tribeca, which had postponed its spring sprocket opera.

The free-to-watch programming will run May 29-June 7, and include feature, shorts, documentaries, music, comedy and panel discussions. Viewers will be asked to make donations for COVID-19 relief, however. That strategy worked well during the recent NFL Draft, which raised $100 million for charities.

Cannes, Toronto and Venice noted that this online offering was not taking the place of its own events, and that each festival was in charge of its own programming for the YouTube streaming fest.

This comes on top of Tribeca’s pivot in March, after the festival was postponed, as the team found innovative ways to offer as much of their program online as possible.

Fifteen virtual reality projects from their Cinema360 strand can be accessed by anyone with an Oculus headset. And accredited press and industry were encouraged to view a selection of the feature lineup via Tribeca’s proprietary Extranet service — much as SXSW did when it was forced to cancel a week before opening night.

A year from now, for Tribeca’s 20-year anniversary, Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca Festival CEO/founder and head of Tribeca Enterprises, hopes that everyone is in a different position.

“We are going to plan for a robust 20th celebration of life and resilience and art and storytelling,” she says. “This festival has always been about the resiliency of New York.”

Busan, another major film festival — Asia’s biggest — expects to go forward in October; however, its organizers are working closely with the Korean government to minimize any health challenges.

“Another big deal is that programmers are unable to travel overseas,” says Lee Yong-kwan, chairman of the Busan Intl. Film Festival. “They are currently putting best efforts via online networking.”

More urgently, the prestigious Bucheon Festival of Fantastic Film (BiFan) and its genre film market are scheduled for July 9-16 in South Korea. Thomas Nam, head of the market and a BiFan selection member, says: “We will not postpone,” adding that it has “no plan for cancellation.” South Korea has “fewer than 10 new positive [COVID-19] cases per day, and the government is still enforcing social distancing until zero new cases.

“We are confident that by July, we can have both offline and online festivities. One huge thing we will not have this year: foreign guests.”

He says that the juries’ work will be done online, both for the festival and for project market, for which all programs will be virtual this year. The fest will also incorporate social distancing and health checks at theaters.

“What we have seen so far are festivals understanding the magnitude of what we are all facing and trying to work together in a more friendly fashion even though they compete as well,” says Glen Basner of FilmNation.

While the Cannes virtual market has wide support from the indies, there is still speculation about the world after the worst part of the pandemic subsides.

Sebastien Raybaud, founder of London-based financier and producer Anton, expects to see a “further polarization of the market,” with commercial mainstream movies being more in demand, while smaller arthouse films take longer to sell.

He notes that local independent distributors around the world — many of whom have been hit hard by the crisis — will be cautious about picking projects, as they have a backlog of films to release. Even if theaters reopen in June, he doesn’t believe cinemagoing will return to pre-crisis levels for some time.

O’Shea concurs: “There are specific buyers that built their business on maintaining that purity of the theatrical release. Those guys are really freaked, I think.”

Saban Films president Bill Bromiley, notes that his shingle is focused on home entertainment. Saban acquired two movies in mid-April: thriller “The Silencing” and drama “Most Wanted.”  “I am not concerned yet. If we were more focused on theatrical, we’d be in trouble, but we’re not,” he says.

When people will be comfortable enough to head back into re-opened theaters is an open-ended question.

“I do think the exhibition business is in peril,” says Astute Films’ Fred Bernstein. “And we’re going to have to be very creative on how we re-configure, revamp, reestablish. I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Do I think it can be done? Absolutely. It’s not going to happen overnight, and the biggest thing that I’m concerned about is getting people comfortable to go into theaters.”

Raybaud thinks it won’t be until Toronto, at the earliest, that local independent distributors start acquiring films again in any number, but it could be as late as Berlin, depending on the type of pic. Smaller arthouse movies — especially those “more on the arty side” — are likely to be less in demand. “People will prioritize the films where the route to making money will be simpler,” he says.

Raybaud says the virtual market in June will benefit a certain type of project: sales of more commercial packages that are ready to shoot and are aimed at large global or pan-regional players — especially those that can stream films online immediately — will go ahead, whereas the sales of films that are aimed at local theatrical distributors are likely to take longer to sell.

“We have had to adapt our strategy,” says Jonas Katzenstein, co-CEO of Augenschein Filmproduktion. AF and the sales agents on “Home” — BAC for international sales and BAC and Endeavor Content co-repping U.S. — “will probably approach buyers sooner rather than later,” and won’t wait for the premiere to do that.

AF’s sci-fi thriller “Stowaway,” with Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette, “is still in post, so we can wait a few weeks more, but there is the need to react at some point,” says Maximilian Leo, AF co-CEO.

The producers would, of course, prefer a festival premiere in a theater rather than a virtual launch, but when it comes to selling films, it is a different matter. It is “a bit strange that this hasn’t happened anyway because we have the technical facilities,” says Maximilian Leo, AF co-CEO.

He says that the COVID-19 crisis may be a catalyst for other changes in the market, with a greater emphasis placed on premium VOD releases than on the theatrical release, and a greater flexibility when it comes to windowing.

Most in the business remain optimistic about the fortunes of the independent film sector, and see the American Film Market, which runs Nov. 3-8 in Santa Monica, as being a potential turning point.

“Obviously, it depends on when the world reopens, but if we assume it reopens in June, then I think by AFM everything will be rosy again,” Leo says.

O’Shea notes that Toronto will be the starting point for “business as usual” in this new paradigm. “People whose business model is based on maintaining and growing relationships at markets and festivals will be the first ones to embrace a festival and market,” he notes.

“It is brand new [but] in some ways it is very familiar,” Basner says. “It is up to all of us to do this in a way that can be productive and effective and easy for our customer base around the world.”

While productions have been put on hiatus, most predict that 2020 and the first half of 2021 look fine, if a bit crowded. But after that, product will be a bit scarce.

“I’m still trying to sell films, and am focusing on VOD titles,” says Suh Youngjoo, CEO/company owner of Korean Finecut. “I’m worried about supply for 2021, not about supply for 2020. Some productions are beginning to shoot in South Korea now. By July or August movies should be shooting again. And I’m worried about the general state of industry and the wider economy”

Bernstein’s got “Here Today,” a comedy starring Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal (that he also wrote and directed) in post.

“If this ended sometime between now and mid-summer, it’s going to take a year for all of this product to sort itself out into some semblance of normal,” he says.

But for now, the indie players are trying to works out a new normal.

“I can tell you that from our conversations [with producers and distributors], while people are trying to figure out how it will work functionally, they all recognize the fact that the sooner we get back to doing business the sooner their business will normalize in terms of having a steady flow of content — so we are all motivated by the same thing,” says Basner.

Carole Horst contributed to this report.