This year’s Zurich Summit started off with a bang as a host of top industry executives gathered on stage to discuss one of the most challenging issues facing the world of independent film today: how do you finance a film? independent in the age of streaming?
The panel was inevitably drawn to the pros and cons of going the transmission route.
Former Lionsgate film chief Patrick Wachsberger, who was most recently a producer on the Oscar-winning hit. CODA, spoke at length about the challenges he faced in financing the project. The Pathé title was a project he helped develop at Lionsgate and took with him when he left the US studio. The film had previously been sold in several international territories, but caused a stir when Apple came in and acquired the film at Sundance for $25 million in a worldwide deal, prompting the streamer to make repurchase agreements with those rights holders.
“We needed capital, the budget for the movie was $14 million,” he said. “There was a pandemic, there was no theatrical market and we were selected to go to Sundance, we needed it,” she said. “The film was in the can.”
When asked if that film would have worked theatrically and won the Best Picture Oscar if it had followed the traditional presale model, he replied, “I don’t know.”
Frank Smith, President and CEO of Walden Media, who has a strong history of working with streamers and studios, having recently produced the babysitters club for netflix and Finch for Apple TV+, he acknowledged some of the obstacles facing the independent film world.
“The challenges that we’re facing right now with streaming is that it’s getting harder and harder for me to find places to deploy my capital,” Smith said. “I’m trying to put together a lot of different kinds of movies right now and I’m trying different ways to do it, but streamers aren’t necessarily that interested. They are interested in paying for it and owning it or, if you are lucky enough, you can get a cost-plus deal, but it is getting more and more difficult.”
Christine Vachon of Killer Films, producer of Carol Y still alicehe insisted that funding for independent films has become “so personalized that very few companies can thread those little needles” that are needed to get independent projects off the ground.
“Streamers, that’s a bigger discussion because it’s about ownership and longevity and evergreens and their copyright and what is their role,” Vachon said. He pointed out that the projects that he had licensed 25 years ago now have value and a reincarnation in the world of streaming. “That French proverb that ‘the more that changes, the more it stays the same’ is very true. But we are dealing with some new challenges that are definitely specific to the times.”
Alex Brunner of UTA Independent Group agreed with this sentiment, noting the project Mrs. Harris goes to Paris as an example of an independent title that had recently worked with the old financial staples that have underpinned the business for so long. The British-Hungarian co-production agreed to tax rebates and was pre-sold to Focus Features with a promotion.
“The structure that we’ve all been playing with for the last two decades still comes up sometimes because it’s still exactly what you need,” he said.
Emilie Georges, CEO of the Memento International sales team and production company Paradise City, had a stronger view on the independent opportunities in the world of streaming: “Streamers are not the target of many of the independent films we work on.” , said. “There is no way you can bring offers to streamers to fund movies like call me by your name or finance [directors like] Anthony Chen or Asghar Farhadi”.
Interestingly, this was discussed by a Netflix delegate in the audience: Sasha Buhler, Head of EMEA Film for Netflix, responded that Netflix was indeed a place for these directors to find a home. “There are certainly benefits to working with streamers – I come from the independent world, so I understand that people want to have their movies in theaters.” She added: “I would say Netflix has a lot of theatrical movies.”
Georges noted an “interesting influx” of startups he’s been working with in the independent film financing space that are “taking all the risks.” In the meantime, he said, the traditional model of pre-selling a title was becoming increasingly challenging.
However, Frank Smith pointed to the fact that the appetite for content has never been better, saying that streamers have posed as a great home for projects that have previously been shunned in the independent world.
“We have projects right now that have been in the making for 15 years, things that Patrick [Wachsberger] transmitted, that they are being done,” he said.
Smith added: “It’s a great time for the product. But as a financier, it’s more problematic because right now I can no longer make a $19 million dollar movie that makes $200 million or $300 million at the box office and have a source of income to cover my losses from these other movies. It is getting more and more difficult and the profit margins are more fixed”.