While First Signal continues through the festival circuit and SOS United States just starts with festival submissions, my next decision is to decide who I’m placing First Signal with for VOD. For once the decision is made, I need to have faith in those that will be handling the majority of the rights for the next several years. But after over a year of research and discussions, I’ve narrowed it down to two companies. Look for a formal announcement shortly.
With First Signal largely wrapping up its festival run in April, my attention is now turning to theatrical. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had conversations with a small chain and a few independent theatres. The plan is the same I implemented with Justice Is Mind—one evening theatrical screenings in select markets. Of course, the world has changed over the last year with some of the theaters asking for multi-night screenings. Naturally, that would be fine with me!
There still lies the misconception that indie filmmakers must four wall (rent) a theater to get their movies screened. While I won’t divulge my method for getting films into theaters (sorry some things are my own process), my aim is to always present a win/win situation for the theater and the film. Today, more than ever, theatrical is critical not only to the survival of theaters but the film industry in general.
I understand on one hand why studios are pushing back the release of their major films, but on the other hand they just need to pick a date and get on with it. Simply, there will never be a perfect time. People will either go to the theater or stay home, it’s as simple as that. But if theatrical collapses, that is going to be not only a financial disaster for the industry, but for the local economies these theaters serve. I personally know of four theaters that are closed. Not because of draconian lockdowns, but because they can’t get contemporary product in the hope of some traffic. Seriously, would you go to a theater if that same film was on Amazon or Netflix?
I was asked the other day when I’m going to film my next project. Truthfully, I see this year largely being the marketing of First Signal’s theatrical and VOD release and breaking down SOS United States for a 2022 start date. First Launch, the sequel to First Signal, is being actively presented. But that project will require a substantial investment. Project Shinar, however, is moving along.
Since my last post, I’m delighted to report that First Signal has picked up two additional Official Selections. When I was looking at our laurels the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the international reach these festivals have. This type of placement will work well when First Signal goes to VOD.
Thousands attended the Marché du Film Online. In a world of uncertainty, the entertainment industry came together to insure the continuation of this worldwide marketplace. Of all the industry events I’ve attended over the years, Marché had the best panels that not only informed on the current state of the industry but demonstrated innovative new business models and predictions for the years to come.
One innovation that ramped up exponentially during the crisis has been the virtual cinema. With the majority of movie theaters closed around the world, some distributors joined with cinemas for a virtual experience. Customers visit their theater’s website and order a movie to view online. The revenue is split between the theater and distributor. With one distributor reporting $700K in sales from 13 movies, the early adopters certainly did well. But as another distributor stated, the early novelty dropped considerably during the last month. With restrictions easing and people going out more, the “stay at home” audiences have drastically changed in numbers.
Another thing that distributors learned during the last few months is that content is truly king. Films that they couldn’t previously sell, suddenly started to sell. With the proliferation of VOD platforms and offerings, new content is critical. Two tech pioneers from the Czech Republic introduced Artinii. A service that screens films in alternative settings (outdoor non-theatrical venues such as a bar or restaurant).
But all this available content on VOD also brought the conversation back to data of who is searching for and watching what. With so much of this data controlled by individual companies, it was discussed that this data should be available to all distributors to give customers what they want regardless of the platform they are watching it on. Proponents said that it would benefit everyone from the distributor to the customer. Opponent VOD platforms want to protect their data to benefit their catalog of offerings. While I understand that the platforms want to protect their own customer data, I have to believe that a neutral third party could hold general data that could be used by the industry to ascertain what’s working and what isn’t. This is why the theatrical experience is critical — distributors know by ticket sales what films are resonating in what market. Needless to say, the data debate will be going on for some time.
The one thing the general public doesn’t know, is the system that brings films to audiences. Imagine the following: films are produced year one, year two they are in post and year three they wind up at a market (AFM, Cannes, etc.). A release date is set, advertising dollars are spent, the marketing and public relations machine goes into overdrive a buzz is generated. Then suddenly, without warning, the theaters shut and all marketing comes to a grinding halt. Honestly, I don’t even want to know the tens, if not hundreds, of millions that have been lost in this industry.
With some theatrical markets just opening and others in the opening planning stages, from what I heard audiences aren’t rushing back. One of the primary issues is that the system is holding back new films as nobody really wants to do a release to near empty theaters. It could also be assumed audiences don’t want to see old releases or they are still concerned about the crisis. There’s also the issue of capacity. With social distancing still employed, who can make any money on capacity limits? How can you plan a theatrical release strategy when reactionary Governors threaten to shut down states again? And, honestly, who wants to sit in a theater with a mask on for three hours? Seriously, how do you eat popcorn? I know I won’t return to a theater until masks are no longer required. Given the amount of information available, they are a prop that has no meaningful benefit in the mainstream. I want my choices of recreation to be enjoyable not overly regulated to satisfy the hysterics. In Canada and the UK they give you a choice. Hopefully, in the United States we will soon have freedom of choice (odd, I thought we did with something called our First Amendment…I digress).
It became quite clear during the market that release windows are rapidly changing between theatrical and VOD. The customer wants the choice on where, when and how to watch new releases. You might not want to go to a theater and pay $14, but you may pay $19 to watch it on premium VOD at home. Cinema, however, is going to be jammed in 2021 because of the films that are being held back this year. At the end of the day films are financed by distributors in advance…they need a return.
I will say this, theatrical is critical to a movie’s success. This is where substantive revenue is made. This is where substantial press is received. Without some sort of theatrical exposure, a film gets lost among VOD offerings. One of the most thoughtful discussions was how to properly advertise a film on a VOD platform. You can advertise a film as in theaters, but VOD specific advertising is still a nascent possibility. Recognition on the platforms is critical. Just putting a film on them isn’t enough. You need audience engagement and that largely comes from a theatrical release and the media.
A panel I particularly enjoyed was when a well-known producer covered the process of constructing a proper script and presenting the package to the industry (investors, sales agents, etc.). What I loved was her no-nonsense practical approach. This is an industry about continued learning and expanding your network. It’s about meeting and working with new people.
I was generally pleased with how First Signal was received during the Marché. Several sales agents requested a screener and one sent me a deal memo to review yesterday. In addition to submitting to a variety of festivals with 4th and 1st quarter events, I’m closely monitoring the reopening of theaters and other screening opportunities to plot strategy. Fortunately, First Signal wasn’t “caught” in the crisis from a release point of view. We were still in the fitting out phase.
In the end it was a great job by all concerned. The team behind the Marché du Film, turned the most prestigious film market in the world to a successful virtual event. But as all agreed, virtual markets won’t work for the long term. This is an industry that requires socializing. It requires in person meetings as that is the only way you can really decide if you want to work someone. You can be introduced on a video chat, but the real works starts when you meet in person.