Two weeks ago I attended my third AFM (American Film Market). While I enjoyed attending live the last couple of years, I met more “qualified” contacts during the virtual version. In addition to the requisite panels that discussed all things around the industry, it was the “Networking Pavilion” module that worked out great for so many of us.
When you entered the pavilion you essentially found yourself in a large ballroom with tables. You could view profiles of those sitting at a table and then decide if you wanted to join. When you sat at a table you could see and hear what others were saying but your mic and camera were off by default. This worked out well because on two occasions they were talking about subjects that I had no interest in. But if you liked the conversation, you could turn on your camera and mic to join. Conversations were generally insightful, if not illuminating.
Depending on who you talked to the present crisis has either been a boon, bust or business reinvention. The winner in all of this has been VOD. The bust has clearly been theatrical. The reinvention are those that have adapted to the world we presently live in—notably virtual film festivals. But through it all, there still was that general feeling of excitement and positive energy. We all know this crisis will pass as it simply must. When it does, it’s full steam ahead on everything.
There seems to be two types of films that are thriving now and will continue to do so even after the crisis. The microbudgets that are nicely produced, with a solid story but a no name cast and the eight figure films with A list talent (oddly, story didn’t seem to be a focus). The former doesn’t require an exorbitant return to be profitable, while the latter has A talent driving profitability.
The takeaways from the market were numerous. With so many festivals going virtual, will they share their data on how well a film did when it screened online? Will virtual festivals share revenue with filmmakers? On film marketing, what’s the one still that represents your film (I think I’m still working on that with First Signal), IMDb TV is really making it, AVOD (Ad-Supported Video on Demand) is where the money is (can anyone say TUBI). I was particularly keen on the sales agent panel. What are the values of indie films in the current marketplace? While sales estimates are important, never go with the highest estimate. Sales agent commission is generally not less than 15%. However, those on the panel say 7-20% depending on what the contract expenses were. Finally, as one panelist said (and something I’ve been doing), conduct due diligence on sales agents – call client filmmakers to see if they are happy with the business arrangement. Of course, there are always a couple of panelists that should never be on a panel. One was so condescending I couldn’t believe how he was talking to the 250+ in attendance. Then he proceeded to hand out some incorrect nonsense on how to use IMDb. How these people get on a panel is beyond me. But all in all, it was a great experience with one panelist remarking something I’ve always believed in—no matter what you’ve done, you’re never done in your career.
In closing, I want to congratulate Wendy Hartman for winning the Best Actress award at the Canadian Cinematography Awards. Wendy was a last-minute replacement to play the role of Helen Colton, the President of the United States. To say she is the consummate professional would be an understatement. A wonderfully experienced and gifted actress who brought this character to life and propelled the story forward. It’s one thing when an actor plays a part, it’s another when an actor becomes the part. It was the subtle nuances that Wendy brought to the character that created believability.
In the coming days I’ll be able to announce that post-production on First Signal is completed. With every inch closer to that accomplishment, I can’t help but think of the journey. It has been nearly three years from concept to competition. In hindsight I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Through all the fits and starts of locations, cast and crew, in the end everything worked out the way I hoped. As of this date the official trailer for First Signal has been selected by three film festivals!
However, another journey lies ahead. Fortunately, it’s a trip I’ve been on before – marketing and distribution. Yes, the plans include film festival submissions, distributor pitches, various screening opportunities and, I hope, some solid media interest in the “First World Universe.” With the world starting to reopen, the key will be to find partners that are interested in working with us. Like I did with Justice Is Mind, you want to work with those that want to work with you. I’ve always believed that distribution should be a partnership of cooperation, not just a take from any given side.
There’s no question that the entertainment industry has been financially decimated. I sadly know several people that have had to exit it permanently because of economic reasons (everyone needs to eat). While it’s encouraging to learn that production is starting to resume in certain parts of the world, some of the restrictions I see being proposed will only accomplish an increase in costs and time with nary a health benefit. Who is going to cover those increases when we are now in an economic depression? The economics of this whole situation is pretty simple. How is a distributor going to price a film when a sizable percentage of the global audience is on unemployment or reduced earnings? What it really comes down to is disposable income and what audiences are willing to spend to be entertained. I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that we see a vibrant return to some sort of market normalcy (I refuse to use the phrase ‘new normal’). As movies have always been a form of escapism, I believe audiences will return sooner rather than later to the theatrical experience.
The remainder of 2020 and a good part of 2021 will be devoted to the marketing and distribution of First Signal. I know the film will find its audience and a solid distributor will present itself. For me, I always try to look at a situation with a spirit of optimism and to avoid those situations that attempt to drag me into some sort of milieu. I’d rather navigate out of a small port with an overcast, than attempt to sail through a busy port in the center of a storm.
I can thankfully say that First Signal isn’t tied to debt covenants or other financial obligations. One of the benefits of being the sole executive producer is that I’m largely only answerable to myself on the financial front. But a film isn’t designed to be made and relegated to a shelf. A film is produced to be seen and enjoyed by an audience. One of the primary responsibilities as executive producer is to insure that my film gets released. If anything a producer has a responsibility to the actors and crew that shared the vision. Because that’s what film is all about – a vision.
While we all enjoy seeing our favorite films on VOD, there’s nothing like the theatrical experience. You enter a vast room with anticipation; that leads to the dimming of lights and the initial roll of the opening credits and the crescendo of a score.