Zurich 2022 – ZFF Industry
Industry Report: Distribution, Exhibition and Streaming
The Zurich Summit muses on financing independent films in the age of streamers
by David Katz
A panel of international industry powerbrokers discussed this contentious and fast-developing issue at the Zurich Film Festival’s industry conference
The mood at the Zurich Summit’s opening panel, “How to Finance Independent Films in the Age of Streamers”, reflected elements of the backlash that platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have begun receiving, as the pandemic has wound down and the theatrical business has started to regain its footing. Whilst all five of the panellists did not ignore the fact that they have cemented their reputations and continue to work with the theatrical model, they weighed up the state of affairs whereby the streaming platforms’ financial reach might make their work easier, also acknowledging the various boons they could give up in exchange.
After a surprising blast of intro music, courtesy of the famous Tomoyasu Hotei soundtrack cue from Kill Bill, the forty-minute panel commenced with moderation from Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman. The eminent panellists on stage at Zurich’s Dolder Grand were Alex Brunner, from UTA Independent Film group; Emilie Georges, CEO of sales agent Memento International; Frank Smith, president and CEO of US financier Walden Media; Christine Vachon, co-president of Killer Films, who produced the likes of Carol [+see also:
film profile] and Boys Don’t Cry; and Patrick Wachsberger, founder and CEO of Picture Perfect Federation, and the former co-chairman of the mini-major Lionsgate, who also won the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier this year for CODA.
One of Vachon’s earliest statements encapsulated the whole panel’s overall conclusions, as she said, “Figuring out the financing for these types of independent films has become so bespoke – there are very few companies that can thread those teeny-weeny little needles.” Each annual cycle brings new challenges, she reminded the audience, and with the foreign sales model, “I feel every year like this is the last year we’ll be able to do this. That French proverb – the more it changes, the more it stays the same – is still very accurate, but we’re dealing with some new challenges that are definitely specific to the times we’re living in.”
She also emphasised the streamers’ potential involvement in different stages of a film’s life cycle: “With them, that’s a whole bigger discussion which becomes one about ownership, longevity, evergreens and copyright, and what your role is. When I signed licences for titles I produced 25 years ago, those are starting to come back to us now, and it’s very interesting as we try to figure out their lives.” And when assessing the different features of a talent “package” that could be sold to a streamer, “there’s a steep learning curve for talent to understand how drastically the business has shifted in terms of their profit participation, and why they’ll agree to be in a first-time filmmaker’s film, or a low-budget film, or what have you. That’s very challenging.”
Georges used the example of her upcoming project Drift [+see also:
film profile], from Cannes-awarded Singaporean director Anthony Chen and starring Cynthia Erivo, as an example of the savvy yet piecemeal way a large, director-driven independent film could be financed without having to rely on a streamer’s capital. For the French-UK-Greek co-production, “the only issue was not to have the French element very dominant, because we don’t have French writers or directors, which makes the project very difficult to embrace as a French film; we’ve decided to take the risk and make a link between Greece and the UK, even though they don’t have a co-production treaty”. And on the issue of private equity, brought up continually at the event, “we explored the avenue of equity financiers, and we found them through the talents. Sometimes, this equity was coming from China for Anthony Chen; some was coming from the USA, for the great Cynthia Erivo – someone that was supporting her as well.” Vachon echoed this by adding, “There’s been an interesting influx in the American equity scene of some younger investors who are often investing at early stages – in development, for example. They invest with their head and their heart.”
Wachsberger’s own story with CODA, which indeed was a US remake of the 2014 French-Belgian film The Bélier Family [+see also:
film profile], came under the spotlight as a case that involved both traditional methods and the potential benefits of a streamer – Apple+ in that film’s case. “There were platforms that wanted the movie after it showed at Sundance. I was told, ‘Don’t worry, you can buy back those territories already sold to distributors.’ Not quite, not any more. They basically said, ‘Look, if the movie was a piece of shit, we would not ask you to buy it back.’ There was a problem: I was in conflict because I had sold the movie independently. Apple was great; they played ball and said, ‘Fine, we’ll deduct the amount of money that you received or that you would receive from those independent distributors, from the MG [minimum guarantee].’ This movie would have been put together as a theatrical movie – the question is, would the movie have worked theatrically? I don’t know.”
Sacha Bühler, director of International Original Film at Netflix, was on hand in the audience to vouch for the other side: “Our goal is certainly to develop with the marketplace, and be more and more flexible. We want to be fair partners; we don’t want to screw someone out of talent. Who doesn’t love talent? But you have a better chance on Netflix than you do theatrically without talent. We know people like discovering new faces on Netflix; they like it less in theatres. There, they want to have a headliner – someone they know. My question to you all is: when do you think is the right time to work with streamers? For what kinds of films do you think, ‘Oh, this would be perfect’?”
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