The ongoing disruption to the film business caused by the virus crisis is generating opportunity as well as uncertainty according to a panel of US indie producers and sales executives on the eve of the first online American Film Market (AFM). 

“There are a lot of people looking for content right now,” said Brian Beckmann, CFO of Arclight Films. ”We’ve had nine months with very few productions getting off the ground… so we’re going to run into a supply and demand issue. Producers that can get a project off the ground and turn it around quicker than the typical 12 months are going to have the advantage.”

Beckmann was joined by Mimi Steinbauer, president at Radiant Films International, independent producer Kim Sherman, and Tony Armer, film commissioner of St Petersburg Clearwater in Florida, in the latest edition of ScreenDaily Talks series that explored how US producer and sales executives are navgating the pandemic.  

Watch the ScreenDaily Talk in full above

Steinbauer said buyers had previously been very selective about the completed films they were looking to secure but were now actively seeking titles that could sell on a local level at a time when the theatrical business is increasingly uncertain. But she voiced a note of caution. “Many of my buyers are theatrical and their business models are theatrical… so they’re limited in terms of what they can do on their end,” she said. “Week to week, we don’t know if they’re able to exploit [films] theatrically so that’s affected what they’re looking for. Yes, they’re looking for content but what are they going to do with it locally? There’s appetite but also a conscious risk assessment on their end, given all the unknowns.”

However as studios continue to push their releases into 2021, opportunities for independent features have emerged. 

“This is one of those periods of time where independent films of a certain quality actually have a shot of being able to be released theatrically because so many studio films have been pushed,”  said Beckmann. He highlighted the “fantastic” performance of prison break thriller Escape From Pretoria, starring Daniel Radcliffe, which was ready for theatrical release when cinemas needed new titles.

Steinbauer said one of Radiant’s titles, immigrant drama Ein Nasser Hund, will benefit from a wide release in German through Warner Bros. due to the deficit in studio releases. “This wouldn’t have gotten onto hundreds of screens in Germany pre-Covid, but because the studios aren’t releasing anything, we have a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “Distributors have to be incredibly flexible, quick on their feet and exploiting rights however they can.”

Insurance 

The ongoing challenge of production during the pandemic continues with known issues around insurance and the added cost of Covid-safe protocols remaining prevalent.

US producer Kim Sherman, whose credits include You’re Next, recently wrapped No Man Of God, starring Elijah Wood as the FBI analyst on the case of serial killer Ted Bundy, having seen the Los Angeles production shut down at the beginning of lockdown in March.

“Our cast and crew were really willing to do what was needed to meet the highest standards of safety, which in the end allowed us to put Covid to the back of our minds,” she said of the film, produced by Spectrevision and sold by XYZ Films. “We did stringent testing, took temperatures every day and kept our offices remote… For us, the pride came from people not getting sick and from watching the quality of work coming from people, knowing they felt safe.”

Sherman said the budget increase for Covid compliance can range from 25% to 30% but that securing insurance in the US remained difficult.

“It’s been immensely discouraging and one of the hurdles that has prevented a great deal of films from getting off the ground,” said Arclight’s Beckmann.

“There are wild and crazy insurance products out there but they are so cost-prohibitive, it doesn’t make sense for an independent film. I’ve heard horror stories of films that have been shut down because of situations – whether in the US or globally – and there’s just no way that they’re going to be cost-effectively get back off the ground again. It’s really discouraging.”

Tony Armer, St Petersburg Clearwater film commissioner in Florida, said local production in the state has picked up dramatically in recent months for commercials and digital projects but not yet feature films.

“There were a number of larger projects scheduled to come this year but have all be pushed to 2021,” he said. “But we do have around three features that look to shoot here, anywhere from January to March, in to $500,000 to $1m range.”

“Getting production insurance is no problem… but it won’t cover Covid,” he added. “What you do need to do is make sure you’re taking all the procedures to ensure the set is safe so you don’t get shut down. That’s the risk. It really depends on the appetite of the financier and if they believe in what the production has put together and think they can pull it off safely without shutting down.”

“A necessary evil”

The sales executives had differen views on the 2020 phenomenon of virtual markets. “They’re a necessary evil,” said Beckmann. “I don’t think any of our team has particularly enjoying doing virtual markets… It’s not a preferred method of selling and getting films out there It’s different when you’re face to face and sit down to show a promo. You lose those personal touches in a virtual market.”

Steinbauer was more upbeat. “I think it’s incredibly efficient… We were all exhausted from travelling all the time so I think people are more refreshed and focussed. I’m not finding it as horrible as expected.”

She added that Radiant will attend the Tokyo film market virtually, something that would not have been considered had they needed to fly to Japan, and will introduce themselves to new buyers.

Beckmann added: “The next physical market I think we have a shot at is Cannes.”

The session was sponsored by the St Petersburg Clearwater Film Commission in Florida.