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As the American Film Market enters its second year of online dealmaking, with films like Arclight’s “The Portable Door,” starring Christof Waltz and Sam Neill (pictured above) looking to seal deals in the virtual market, Variety spoke to four veteran film buyers and sellers about how they’ve navigated virtual markets, the lessons they’ve learned, the online platforms they’ve used and what it all will mean for doing business when (and if) the pandemic ends.

Sierra/Affinity

Kristen Figeroid

After nearly three years as senior VP of international sales and distribution at Endeavor Content, Figeroid rejoined film finance, production and sales company Sierra/Affinity in September as its managing director and exec VP.

Are there any effective ways to navigate virtual markets?

Don’t start at 6 a.m. — I tried that once and it was a terrible idea. [Laughter.] The biggest thing is to be entertaining, crack your jokes and not lose your audience, because it’s easy to become sluggish when you’re pitching your five new movies over and over.

Which sales strategies work online and which don’t?

We have fatigue, the virtual setting is terrible, you get all the work and none of the fun … yet we’ve managed to maintain business. But you don’t have the ability to lock someone in a room; at the end of a market, you might say, “Have a coffee with me, let me know how things went” and close a couple more deals, just because their budget still exists. I tried that by phone at the very first virtual market in Cannes, and the buyer laughed at me! He said, “That doesn’t work when I can just hang up on you.”

How do you work around those challenges?

You have to press a little harder. Buyers are trapped at home, so getting their attention is extremely important. Showcasing a promo for [Dev Patel’s] “Monkey Man” was one of the best successes Endeavor Content had at a virtual market in Berlin. We presold part of the world, but most of the rest sold to Netflix [for around $30 million]. Being able to control showing that kick-ass footage in a virtual room with buyers, gauge their reaction and capitalize on that energy was a valuable part of it. However, we also showed promos in an hour block where you could log in and watch it at your leisure. You can’t hold the material hostage. You have to share it as often as possible to make sure it’s convenient to watch.

For screenings, you give people enough time to be flexible, but shut it down quickly so there’s a finite amount of time fielding offers. That became a repeat experience of, “Oh, we’ll do another four-day window,” because a marketing team or TV sales rep didn’t get a chance to watch it.

In what ways will this affect the future of markets?

When we’re back in person, there will be a huge positive for people who aren’t able to attend; say, Europeans who focus on arthouse fare, or a seller who’s pregnant. We can do a hybrid market where there are a lot of in-person meetings and a half- hour is blocked out for someone who can’t make it.

Which online platforms have you used?

BlueJeans and Microsoft Teams, and we might need to add Zoom to the list — for instance, buyers in China can’t just log on to any video conferencing platform.

Have you used AFM’s platform?

No, because even though it’s helpful for the buyers at that specific market, we’re operating at all the markets and in between them with the systems we’re comfortable with.

So what role does AFM play in virtual dealmaking?

Having AFM even virtually captivates everyone’s attention for that week and allows it to become the traditional environment [to do business]. I can’t just launch a script tomorrow and expect buyers around the world to close deals a week from now. We’re all building up to the market that first week of November.

Kiska Higgs of Focus Features Focus Features

Kiska Higgs

Higgs is president of production & acquisitions at Focus Features.

What’s your takeaway from more than a year of virtual markets?

I physically went to Cannes and Toronto, but we found that the pure acquisition side is a little more effective online. You don’t get the pleasure of meeting people from around the world, but you can, for better or worse, take meetings from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. back-to-back. We’ve bought voraciously, so I think for AFM —especially because there’s no festival attached — it’s a pretty efficient way to do business. Sales agents must like not having to spend on the overhead costs, which probably helps them in leaner times.

Any success stories?

James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” which we bought as a package in Cannes last year [for around $15 million]. We’d gotten a script in advance, as usual, and CAA had James record a promo reel talking about his point of view, followed by a phone call rather than an in-person meet-and-greet. The talent and agents don’t have to answer crazy in-room questions like how much hair your lead actor will have, which territory buyers sometimes ask in the middle of someone pouring their heart out. [Laughter.] I would love to go back to physically meeting people, [but] AFM is a weird one because it always feels a bit dislocated: it’s on the beach, but you’re not going to the beach.

Any other benefits or pitfalls?

So much of our job is convincing colleagues we’re passionate about something and building a case around it, and that is more effective when you’re all in a room together. On the other hand, [online] you’re not swayed by the idea of buzz or competition. I think that’s good. You can make judgments in a vacuum, because nothing any of us does should matter to the other. We probably bought as much as we have in any other year, so it hasn’t affected the way we do business. However, we have a really big slate and more worldwide distributors [than others —14 to 16 films a year, plus more international-only films and some local-language films], so we’re probably the only company that has that particular ability to buy.

How will online business affect the future of markets?

I’d imagine that it’s going to be a financial calculus from the point of view of the sales agents and agencies: Are they able to do the same amount of business not sending everyone everywhere, [factoring in] who’s buying what, what distributors are around and what genres they’re buying for? It’s hard to tell what the distribution space is going to be like even year-to-year. I think everyone emotionally wants to get back together, but they don’t want the hassle. So if there’s a way to have the best of both worlds, maybe someone should figure that out. [Laughter.]

David Garrett, founder and CEO of Mister Smith Entertainment

Mister Smith Entertainment

David Garrett

Garrett is founder and CEO of Mister Smith Entertainment.

How are you doing business online?

We use i2i, which a lot of other U.K. sales companies and some U.S. companies use. It’s very user-friendly — we can show stills and promos live. One great benefit of virtual markets is that everyone shows up on time and you get a full half-hour with them sitting at their desk with notes, everything prepared, not having lost their phone or leaving five minutes early to run to the next meeting. There’s something wonderfully stress-free about it.

What role do the markets play in doing business online?

There is some benefit in accessing the list of buyers and sellers coming into the market, and we sign up to support it, but more established companies [like ours] know who all the buyers are. Markets serve a function in bringing us together at a certain time. It’s sort of a collective decision between key sellers and agencies who settle on a date, then coordinate something to make it feel like it’s a happening event. It’s a rather weird virtual construct, whereas in physical markets, you see people in corridors, and it creates a buzz that’s hard to re-create. The [virtual] market spills out into the week before and after. You can’t say, “I need an answer because we’re packing up the office tomorrow,” so there’s less urgency.

So if a buyer goes to the Mister Smith booth on AFM’s platform…

There won’t be anything there. They’d have to Google us, then email or call to get in touch. We send our availability, scripts and a 10-minute video presentation of our slate to every buyer known to us two weeks beforehand, so it would only be, say, a new Chinese, Korean or French buyer.

Will things go back to normal after the pandemic?

There will possibly be fewer companies that will travel, and markets may well end up as hybrids between in-person meetings and Zoom calls. But there is a real yearning to go back to face-to-face meetings. There will be a return to these markets, because it’s also a forum for meeting producers and financiers. Those chance meetings, or ones with people you’ve never met before, can be quite transformative.

IFC

Arianna Bocco

Bocco is president of IFC Films.

What are the pros and cons of virtual markets?

While we miss the nuances of face-to-face meetings or bumping into people at the Loews, we did get the ability to have more meetings, and more efficient ones, every 30 minutes. It’s allowed more of my team and the sales teams to be on the meetings, people we normally might not meet with. I found it really productive.

Do you see virtual markets changing how you do business?

Before COVID, AFM was shortening its days, and I could see markets starting earlier prior to festivals like Berlin that run concurrently with them. So I can see markets becoming more condensed and much more targeted. For me, AFM is where you see promos of finished films going to Sundance or Berlin, and it’s your last chance to get on board a project that might start shooting around the end of the year. It’s all very cyclical, and I don’t see that changing.

How have you worked around any difficulties?

You really miss the buzz of being in the room, and hearing rumors or information. It can operate at lightning speed and be really helpful. Now we’re all in our homes, not having the same pipelines. It forces you to reach out and talk more, but in the lobby of the Loews you can get information in 10 minutes that now takes you a lot longer to get. And nothing replaces meeting filmmakers in person when you’re potentially going to board their projects.

What would you do to improve virtual markets?

Everybody has their own platforms so they don’t necessarily utilize the markets’ own platforms all the time. It would be great if everybody could work together to come up with a more cohesive system rather than using platform A versus B, which can be a little dizzying. You’re either on Microsoft Teams or Google Meet or BlueJeans or their screening rooms — there are a lot of competing resources. It would be nice if everybody worked together
to utilize the resources that AFM can provide.