American Film Market Delves Into How Industry Has Coped With Pandemic, Prospects For Recovery
Mark Gill, president of Solstice Studios
Keynoters Mark Gill of Solstice Studios, Elissa Federoff of NEON share insights; AFM 2020 Online boasts 560-plus exhibitors, participation from 78 countries
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The American Film Market--which this year has been transformed into AFM 2020 Online due to the pandemic--delved into varied topics this week while still managing to make a significant virtual footprint, drawing participants from 78 countries. That’s more nations than any in-person AFM confab in the last decade. Some 560-plus exhibitors from 48 countries registered for AFM 2020 Online--which began on Monday (11/9) and wraps the end of this week. Nearly 1,500 buyers from 66 countries have come aboard as well.

While news was still percolating relative to film acquisitions and other deals--including interest generated by the AFM’s LocationEXPO in which film commissions and related services showcased their wares and incentive programs--discussion was also lively online via Zoom sessions. Perhaps the most prominent, top-of-mind subject was the impact of COVID-19, how the industry has coped with the ongoing crisis and what the prospects are for recovery and when a hoped-for rebound will come to pass.

Day one kicked off with the encouraging news that Pfizer Inc. has a vaccine under development which might be as much as 90 percent effective in preventing coronavirus--though that doesn’t mean that the vaccine’s release is imminent. At the same time, the current reality is quite sobering as the U.S. alone reported COVID-19 cases approaching as much as 140,000 per day.

AFM 2020 keynoter Mark Gill, president and CEO of Solstice Studios, noted that such a high daily tally of new cases makes for a “bleak” industry outlook. He’s hopeful that there is, however, light at the end of the tunnel as a vaccine looms and the number of cases gets at some point more under control in the U.S. Gill said it remains to be seen if the film biz’s recovery will be akin to an “express elevator” or a “slow escalator.” The former has been the case in Japan and China, testament to the importance of stopping the virus’ spread as the public in those countries has gained confidence in attending movie theaters, concert venues and sporting events. By contrast in the U.S., with the absence of a concerted national effort thus far and variance among states and local jurisdictions in terms of handling the disease, any eventual recovery would appear to be closer to the gradual escalator pace. 

Still, Solstice Studios has managed to make some headway during the pandemic, successfully releasing the Russell Crowe-starring feature Unhinged back on August 21. In a limited number of theaters--all with attendance restrictions--Unhinged performed well. On the decision to move forward with U.S. theatrical distribution for Unhinged, Gill explained, “Our idea was that we could be first and probably elevate a film of an otherwise modest budget of $33 million against Tenet which is hundreds of millions of dollars or Mulan.”

Solstice was indeed able to “elevate” the movie but, continued Gill, “it wasn’t for the faint at heart because we had five release dates.  Every time we thought it was done, another outbreak would happen somewhere in the U.S. or theaters wouldn’t open or Tenet would move. It was just the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve been doing this for a long, long time.”

The strategy for Solstice was to exhibit Unhinged first in some overseas markets where COVID-19 had been reined in better than in the U.S.--and to strike in the summer because it looked like the fall with an anticipated cold weather-propelled second wave and conventional flu season could get even worse. Gill said that because Asia and Europe were ahead of the U.S. in terms of curtailing the virus, “We allowed the international folks to release first which is not all that common and it worked out great.” He added that his focus was on three dynamics: “There’s the theater owners obviously. There were other distributors, notably Warner Bros. for Tenet and at that time Disney with Mulan.  And then, of course, there’s the public health situation. Our theory was if we waited until the fall, things could easily get worse – which is what we see happening.  Our thought was that in the summer we had a chance. And going first was important since no one else wanted to do it. I’m glad we did. It worked out well for us but it was also an important statement to make about why theaters matter and that people would go.”

But there’s been a regression since as theaters which were open in some 70 percent of the U.S. at one point (for Unhinged) during the pandemic have scaled back to about only 50 percent, noted Gill, adding that “attendance is nowhere near” pre-pandemic levels.

As action-adventure escapist fare, Unhinged, observed Gill, fits the profile of a film that generally had a better chance of drawing viewers during the pandemic. For Gill, three “theories” came into play. “The first is the movie has to be good enough. The second is, for some reason men seem to be a little more willing to go to theaters than women. And third is that it’s a good way to blow off some steam.  We’re all living in a very very tense time.  Unemployment is high. Everything is uncertain. It’s tough for everybody. So if there’s a chance to go and just enjoy some craziness on the screen as opposed to the craziness in our real lives, that’s what the exit polls are telling us that people are liking about these kinds of movies.” 

Unhinged has generated nearly $43 million in worldwide box office; with the U.S. accounting for about $20 million of that total. Gill quipped that the new pandemic “joke” is that $20 million is the new $70 million.

Besides the original production of Unhinged, Solstice Studios is also involved in feature acquisition. On that score, Solstice bought Good Joe Bell at the Toronto International Film Festival in September for $20 million. The film has since been retitled Joe Bell. Based on a true story, Joe Bell stars Mark Wahlberg in the title role of a father based in a small Oregon town who undertakes a walk across the U.S. to raise awareness of bullying after the suicide of his gay son. Gill described Wahlberg’s character as “a flawed man” who embarks on a journey to do good, well before the evils of bullying were in the mainstream social consciousness. At press time, some tweaking was being done on the film. Gill explained, “I thought it was very strong but not quite where it needed to be in terms of hitting critical mass. It will be done in the next two-and-a-half to three weeks and then we need to probably take it to Berlin and we’re looking at releasing it for Academy Award consideration--which is by February 28th.”

The pushed back Oscar-qualifying deadline is too a result of the pandemic. Solstice is selling Joe Bell--which Gill described as an “emotionally compelling film”--worldwide. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green with a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Joe Bell stars Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins and Gary Sinise.

Elissa Federoff
Following Gill’s AFM session (which was moderated by Anthony D’Allesandro of Deadline) was a second keynote conversation, this one with Elissa Federoff, president of distribution at NEON (moderated by Brent Lang of Variety).

Federoff remains bullish about the viability of the theatrical movie-going experience. “We know that audiences will come back to movie theaters, that the theatrical landscape will be vibrant again. This is very exciting news about the vaccine because potentially it makes the span of time a little shorter.” She affirmed, “I truly believe there is no virtual offering, there is no streaming equivalent, there’s no digital equivalent to being in a movie theater with an audience having a completely immersive experience in the dark, no phones, no talking, no distractions and of the audience being a character in that film. That really changes the whole dynamic.”

NEON too has a film it firmly believes will be in the Oscar conversation--Ammonite from writer-director Francis Lee with a cast headed by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Federoff said that while the pandemic precludes NEON from having in-person events to promote Ammonite during Oscar season, the company plans to replace them with virtual happenings and to otherwise look to trade press coverage, advertising and other conventional means to put the film front and center before Academy voters. Ammonite is scheduled to be released on Friday (11/13) in theaters and then, related Federoff, “we’re putting it on PVOD on the 4th of December. This is our first PVOD release that we’ve done and we’re really excited about it. Inside this pandemic and inside this award season, this is a highly strategic way that we are releasing this film.  L.A. is not open, New York is not open, San Francisco is not fully open so we don’t see the theatrical box office at this moment to be the same as it has been in the past and we believe it will be in the future.   This has been previously very very successful for us when we released Bachelorette for example or Snowpiercer--the VOD was so robust that it actually made the film just as viable as if we had put it in theaters and spent the P&A.  So this works great for Ammonite.  We have several other movies on our slate and we would absolutely love them to see them in theaters.  We have Gunda, we have The Killing of Two Lovers, we have several other films for next spring that we have not yet slotted for our release calendar and fingers crossed theaters are back and everyone is going.”

Multiplatform releases remain part of the business equation. But Federoff noted that every film has its own distribution needs. “NEON is not a company that believes every film is one size fits all--there will always be films for us and for the entire world that will need a very long and thought out release in theaters for 180 days before they go to VOD.  We love those.  Films like Honeyland.  We would have never released that in any other way than a long thought out release. Parasite, same thing. But then there have been other films like Snowpiercer that we did in a compressed window and we put it on VOD and it was very very successful for us.  It made in excess of $10 million on VOD.  And the fact that we can be flexible, I think just opens up many more avenues in our business.”

Meanwhile drive-in theaters have gained prominence during the pandemic. Federoff conjectured that the impact could have legs, altering perceptions on what can successfully play there. She related, “I think what has shifted is that they typically were seen as theaters that only play very commercial films. They haven’t been in the space of anything really different. And now they’re playing independent film for the first time. They’re playing art releases. They’re playing movies from smaller companies and not just the major studios, and that’s what has shifted so much about drive-ins. We love having them in our plans. People feel safe. I see them sticking around. I think we’ve opened up both the audiences for drive-ins and the theaters themselves to think more about independent film.”

Numbers, online interactivity
Of the previously cited 560-plus exhibitors at AFM 2020 Online, the largest presence has come from the U.S. with 259 companies followed by Italy (59), the U.K. (46), Russia (25), Germany (20), France (19), Canada (17), Republic of (South) Korea (14), Japan (12), and Thailand (11).

Of the nearly 1,500 buyers participating, the largest number is from the U.S., followed by Japan, the U.K., Republic of (South) Korea, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and Canada. Buyers from the world’s leading digital platforms will also be in attendance. 465 films from 184 companies and representing 24 countries are being screened in the AFM’s On Demand Theater.  

AFM 2020’s online platform has provided interactive video networking capabilities. With technology provided by the company Filmocracy, participants can meet in the Networking Pavilion with 180 online tables for video discussions on preset topics or meet-ups they can schedule. Filmocracy also supports the two online stages where panel discussions and informational sessions are held, including session replays, and the Info Center, enabling AFM to provide the “face-to-face” connections that used to happen organically with in-person encounters in Santa Monica during past years of the event.
Jonathan Wolf, AFM managing director, commented, “The global film industry has set aside this week to connect for deal making, presentations, and education, and to gather marketplace intel from one another.  AFM’s engaging online experience, with the types of serendipitous meetings that happen organically in the halls, hotels and parties each year in Santa Monica, will keep everyone in touch and ensure that independent film continues to reach audiences around the world.”


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