As AFM ramps up, eight leading figures in the UK’s sales agent sector discuss how they have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, what virtual markets mean for business and their hopes for the future.
Physical connection may not be strictly necessary in the field of film sales, but business practice has always been rooted in the relationships that are created at festivals and markets. That has necessitated a major pivot for film sales agents, but the impact of Covid-19 on this sector has been much more far-reaching than simply the way its practitioners do business.
On the eve of the American Film Market (AFM), Screen International canvassed opinions from a selection of UK sales agents, exploring topics including the buying trends in global markets, their experiences at virtual Cannes and life in a post-Brexit world.
Mike Runagall, Managing director, Altitude Film Sales
Formerly serving as SVP international sales at Pathé, Runagall has been part of Altitude since the company was formed by Will Clarke in 2012.
Stephen Kelliher, Director and head of sales and marketing, Bankside Films
Kelliher co-founded Bankside Films in 2007. He has more than 20 years’ experience in international sales and marketing at companies including Beyond Films and Vine International Pictures, and is a former chair of Film Export UK.
Alison Thompson, Co-president, Cornerstone Films
Former co-president of Universal’s Focus Features International, Thompson is also a board member of the Independent Film & Television Alliance.
Charlie Bloye, Chief executive, Film Export UK
Bloye heads up the trade body for companies with UK offices selling, marketing and distributing independent feature films around the world.
Michael Ryan, Partner, GFM Films
Ryan began his career with Lew Grade’s ITC in 1978, going on to co-found and run J&M with Julia Palau. He founded GFM Films in 2011 alongside Guy Collins and Fred Hedman. He is also chair of IFTA.
Gabrielle Stewart, Managing director, HanWay Films
Stewart was previously senior VP of international sales and distribution at Bloom Media. She also worked at Exclusive Media and spent eight years in London at Focus Features International.
Anna Krupnova, Director and co-founder, Reason8 Films
Krupnova moved to London in 2005 and joined Vic Bateman’s AV Pictures, beginning as head of development and eventually becoming head of sales. Denis Krupnov and Krupnova formed Reason8 in 2015.
Simon Crowe, Co-founder and managing director, SC Films International
Formerly head of sales at Icon Entertainment International and Capitol Films, Crowe formed SC Films International in 2008 with financier Matthew Joynes. He also serves as chairman of Film Export UK.
How does your state of mind now compare to what it was in March, at the start of lockdown? Are you more optimistic about your business?
Alison Thompson: In March, we were very uncertain about things. As well as worrying about new titles and the state of the business, we were largely preoccupied with trying to protect the films we had that were about to go out on release. There was a very human reaction to difficult times — fear and real concern about what the future looked like. Of course, with time, you get used to the Covid-19 world and you realise we are not just going to disappear. The past six months have been an interesting time as we try to refigure our model, but I think it has been a very collegiate time. We are part of a big community and I sensed that camaraderie quite strongly. In spite of the fact we are now going into another six months of the Covid world, I feel more confident and optimistic about the future than I did in March.
Gabrielle Stewart: I remember feeling relieved we had quite a few films in post. I felt lucky at that point. We would have felt differently if we’d had to shoot. We had a big Berlin, and we had a lot of our films out of the gate.
Mike Runagall: We’ve adapted quite well from a situation that was unprecedented at the beginning in terms of how we had to change our way of working. There were questions about what the business would look like, but we managed to move to working online pretty well.
Charlie Bloye: It’s too early to talk about recovery but the challenge of Covid-19 is just keeping the wheels on the bus. I’ve been surprised and impressed by how well this has been done. All our member companies are still in business, which wasn’t a given at the start. Some very timely support from the BFI — their sales company organisational support of £500,000 [$660,000] — might have kept the wolf from the door for some companies.
Simon Crowe: It’s the big unknown, which is the exhausting part of it. As a business owner and manager, it’s hard work trying to second guess what’s happening. I don’t believe anyone was thinking a lockdown in the UK was going to be anything like a lockdown in China. We didn’t expect the closing of shops to be anywhere near the level that it was. I was optimistic, as all sales people have to be, in thinking we’d be back to normal in three months or at the very worst, six months, in time for Toronto. Obviously it became more and more difficult to see how we were going to get out of this quickly.
Stephen Kelliher: When it became clear nobody would be travelling anytime soon, that left us high and dry in lots of ways. I think the entire sales community were scratching their heads and trying to understand how our business would continue. The way we had done our business was to travel to film festivals and engage with people face-to-face. That’s what we know.
Anna Krupnova: I am very realistic. I have moved from the hysterical state of March to the overly excited state of a virtual Cannes to a slightly pessimistic start of summer, which was very slow, and then Venice, which really boosted my state of mind. Having two films [in the festival], physically going there, the success stories that came out of it — that gave us a lot of energy to pile through the rest of the year.
How have you modified the way you do business and what was your experience of the virtual Cannes?
Stewart: The negatives are: there isn’t the face-to-face, there isn’t that concentrated energy of completion. You can’t replace competitors seeing each other or the buzz of a film that everybody is talking about. [At physical markets] distributors from different territories share thoughts and opinions. They’ll often find out what distributors from territories are talking about and buying.
The positive is that costs of markets were becoming extreme and we were having to reconsider how much money we were spending. We’ve now focused our spend on creating very strong marketing assets and online presentations. One of the benefits has been how much access we’ve had to talent and how we’ve been able to involve talent in ‘eventising’ sales online. In the virtual Cannes we did a fantastic online conversation with Paul Schrader and Oscar Isaac on The Card Counter and following that we showed footage from the film, which was in post. We sold out. Focus Features bought our promo off the excitement we generated through the event.
By creating these online events, by building a far stronger presence on social media, we are building our brand out there. The level of engagement over the past six months is far greater than anything we’ve had before.
Runagall: The virtual Cannes was a good market for us. It was very positive in terms of the level of engagement and number of sales. We had some robust pre-sales on our documentary about Princess Diana that we’re doing with [producer] Simon Chinn and [director] Ed Perkins, and we pre-sold our genre film Shark Bait.
Kelliher: We fully embraced the virtual Cannes as if it was any other market, put in all of the marketing cost and effort to present a really strong line-up. That was the consequence of craving some certainty around the continuation of business. It was a really effective and successful virtual event. It absolutely needed to happen. We needed to have some kind of assurance or proof we could continue to do what we do in a world where travel is prohibited.
Six months down the line, every-one has switched to the virtual world, but I don’t think it’s the ideal way to do business in the long term. All of our success in selling films to distributors is based on relationships.
Crowe: God bless Cannes. The virtual Cannes at least gave us an opportunity to focus on an event like we normally would. We are all at home, we’re all on Zoom, on our mobiles and email but we could focus on something and it felt like we were preparing for a market, so I thought the virtual Cannes was very important for us all. At SC Films, we did some small deals but at least it gave us some optimism for the future.
Michael Ryan: The Cannes experience was the first time anyone had done it that way and there were some pluses and minuses. The pluses were that it actually took place at all. I think they left it far too late to actually make the decision, hence the machinery wasn’t great -— the screenings were a bit clunky and didn’t work particularly well. The meeting rooms weren’t particularly useful. Most people did that on Zoom.
How useful have you found the BFI awards to sales companies affected by Covid-19?
Kelliher: The BFI quickly realised the sales sector, particularly in the period of the unknown, was going to be as vulnerable to the lockdown as production, development or other sectors of the industry. They were quick to act on that and announce the support fund, which I believe has been very widely engaged with.
Krupnova: It came in at quite a late stage but every little bit helps. We are happy with it.
Crowe: We’ve been through a brutal six months, no doubt about it. Anybody who says we haven’t, I just don’t believe them or they’ve got huge deals with Netflix or a broadcaster. But everyone in the independent world is suffering.
We had some support from the BFI, an emergency grant, which was fantastic. Film Export UK has held meetings for our members every couple of weeks since the start of lockdown to go through the issues we’re all facing and pass on any details from the BFI or the Department of Trade to make sure our group gets as much knowledge as possible. What has been really positive from these Zoom meetings is that a lot of people have contributed.
Ryan: It’s not a massive amount of money but it does help when you’re looking to pay staff costs.
You’ve all made big savings by not travelling to Cannes, Toronto and so on. Post-pandemic, will you cut down on the markets you attend?
Thompson: I think pre-Covid, we were all starting to look at the changing business model. Over the past 20 years, the industry has created more and more events that as a sales agent you either definitely felt obligated to go to or you’ve been incentivised to attend. There have been too many of these markets, festivals or events in the calendar, too many are purely for the purpose of selling films. We were having those conversations, in all honesty, this time last year. It would have been interesting to see what AFM looked like if we hadn’t had Covid-19. I expect we probably will be more careful about the number of events we attend.
Bloye: It’s inevitable that some of the trends already in evidence — fewer people travelling, smaller market stands and offices — will continue when we’re allowed to travel again. But it’s an absolute fallacy to think you can achieve the same while sitting in your home office than on a terrace drinking cocktails.
Crowe: We’ve saved money from not attending but every time I attend Cannes, I make money. Every time I attend Toronto or AFM, I make money. It is expensive going to Cannes, Toronto and AFM but it’s a business. I don’t think anyone would swap a virtual market for a physical one if they could. I would love to be sitting on my balcony in Cannes, overlooking the Mediterranean, drinking rosé and having those lovely meetings and dinners. Sitting on Zoom calls for 20 hours a day is not so much fun. But technology is amazing — it is fantastic we’re able to do this.
Ryan: It’s a hell of a lot cheaper. We are saving a fortune. But there’s nothing like a live market or festival to launch a picture. It’s not the same if it’s done virtually. You can’t generate the excitement you can with a live event.
If you keep the screening room open 24 hours, you don’t have to deal with people being late. Speaking to colleagues, they had screenings at Cannes and Toronto with upwards of 200 people. At Cannes you’re lucky if you get 20 or 30. The machinery and the convenience work very, very well.
Runagall: That’s obviously one of the benefits of a terrible situation, but I still think this is a people business. Nothing can replicate the face-to-face interaction with our buyers. There is going to be a shift… I do think we will be more judicious about how many trips we take. The major markets will continue. It’s an all-year-round business and [the pandemic will accelerate that]. It will allow us to sell films all year round.
What trends have you noticed among buyers during the lockdown?
Thompson: Canny distributors are looking at complementary but slightly different revenue streams. Some are looking to package content to supply to local television stations and SVoD platforms. In small pockets, we’ve seen real opportunity with some theatrical releases that have taken opportunity of a very quiet space. That’s been exciting and helpful for our distributors.
Runagall: It’s having certainty. Is a film real, is it going to happen? Can you get a film into production? It’s such a massive plus if you can get something into production. Distributors only want to pay for things they know are real.
Kelliher: We didn’t feel there was a huge crash in business. We actually saw people more or less buying as they ordinarily would. Obviously, certain areas of the world are very badly affected, more so than others. We’ve seen an absolute decline in demand from Latin America in particular. All of us have noticed it has been an incredibly bad experience for that region and has made it very difficult for them to do business. We’ve yet to see how the market will react fully to the extended period of Covid-19 with cinemas closing and not being able to show films.
I do feel it is going to be challenging for dramas with darker subject matter. Audiences are going to want to veer away from that for the time being. People want to enjoy a moment of escapism. Genre is becoming ever more in-demand, particularly if it’s a smart, intelligent take on that.
Crowe: Every territory has been affected by Covid-19; it’s just bad or worse. Every territory is tricky with theatrical. The lack of studio product, the moving of the James Bond film [No Time To Die], all this has a ripple effect. All of us are in this situation where we are trying to work out a way of surviving for another six months. We are looking at ways of controlling our cash flow, our cash reserves.
Ryan: The Southeast Asian and Chinese market has bounced back — there are buyers and they are willing to buy. But they have used the situation to reduce the money one gets out of that part of the world.
Stewart: Theatrical distributors are much more actively seeking a streamer partner. They are often taking more time in making their proposal to buy a film because they’re trying to make sure they have a streaming partner on board with them. Certainly, the streamers now are a very important partner to our distributors at the point of buying a film.
What impact might Brexit have on your business?
Thompson: None of us quite know what the fiscal implications are in terms of things like withholding tax between countries and how that’s going to play out. That could have quite an impact. We just have to see what happens under the trade deals. The Global Screen Fund [the mooted new BFI Fund to replace the industry’s access to Creative Europe funding] is great — it looks as though the government is going to come up with something for us.
Thank goodness we [in the UK] have the £500m [$660m] Film & TV Production Restart Scheme. In the English-speaking world, I think that has put us in an advantageous position.
Krupnova: It would affect our ability to do co-productions with the rest of Europe. That would have a huge impact on business. For the sales companies — as we are not shifting goods, we are shifting services — I am hopeful that none of the tax treaties will be hugely complicated for us.
Runagall: My concern is how British projects will be treated. To not be able to qualify for European distribution support is going to be challenging for certain types of films. That’s my main concern: that it will limit the offering and have a cultural impact in terms of the types of films that can travel. We’ve seen many auteur filmmakers whose careers have been created by European audiences and European festivals. What will be the future of that?
Crowe: The issue with Brexit is that we just don’t know what’s going to happen on January 1. The biggest problem is going to be distribution support in Europe for UK films. A real concern is that UK films may lose out on bigger theatrical releases because that support may be lacking. Distributors from Italy and France and Germany will ask whether it’s a European-qualifying film when deciding to buy a film or not. We hope this new [Global Screen] fund will be able to support that.
Bloye: With the Global Screen Fund, the Treasury hasn’t announced it, and it’s not a real thing until it’s announced. It’s something we hope will come to pass. The main issue for a no‑deal Brexit would be the acrimony across Europe that it would cause. It would bring into play significant questions like the European nationality of UK films, which really shouldn’t have anything to do with the EU. But if the mood is sufficiently sour in three months’ time, a lot of bad things could happen. The agreement that grants European nationality to British films is nothing to do with the EU. It comes from the Council of Europe, which is a different body as opposed to the European Council.
Kelliher: The European support mechanisms have been vital to people over a number of years. For that to disappear immediately, without any kind of replacement, would be terrible. It is key that the BFI continues to look at ways in which that support might be replaced and enhanced.
What are your hopes for AFM and for 2021?
Kelliher: The geographical characteristics of markets has probably gone away a little bit because everybody is contactable and accessible in the virtual world. We are fully embracing AFM and going to it as we would any other market. I don’t think anybody can have hard-and-fast expectations because things change quickly. We’re going into it confidently but it’s yet to be seen what the appetite of buyers will be.
Everybody, until recently, was working on the assumption that everything would be back to normal by Sundance, but it’s clear that’s not going to be the case. It’s not going to be the case for Berlin either. We fully anticipate those events will be virtual. There are even question marks over Cannes, assuming they stick with their dates.
Everyone is now looking to late summer or early autumn where we might be back in a place where physical events can be held again. This year has proven to us that it’s possible to adapt and change the way we do business. The industry will just continue to do that until we see each other again.
Crowe: We’re an incredibly resilient group. We have to be nimble, we have to adapt. I was brought up writing five-year plans. Then it went to three years. Now we are looking at monthly. There is a lot of doom, but the streamers are spending more on production than in the history of film and television — so there is a silver lining.
We have four animation films in production. We have picked up a film produced through Covid-19. I have developed three animation scripts. Despite the difficulties of the sales business, those of us who have been stuck at home have used our time wisely.
Stewart: I look forward to finding out whether having a strong finished film that’s new to market like [musician] Sia’s Music [which HanWay is selling at AFM] is something that distributors are eager to buy. Do they need a film now as opposed to films that are going into production next year? I am interested to see whether distributors are making long-term or short-term plans.
Runagall: The challenge will be getting films into production. If Berlin goes ahead, it will be something along the lines of Toronto, an event where there will be an audience but it will be a local audience. It feels to me as though everybody is looking towards Cannes as being, hopefully, the first physical market/festival — though I understand they’re potentially going to put it back to July. That could make an interesting summer, with Cannes, Venice and Toronto all within three months of each other.
Thompson: We have four films shooting now. By hook or by crook, we’ve managed to get them financed and into production. It has been through enormous collaboration and effort on behalf of everybody from talent through to financiers. What that means is that in 12 months’ time, we will have brand-new product for the market, and I’m hopeful that will stand us in good stead.
There’s the old normal and the new normal. I don’t know what the new normal means right now. Unfortunately, I think it’s unlikely the majority of the industry will come to Berlin in February.