Many uncertainties surround the format and nature of film markets and festivals in 2021.
As it stands, all significant markets scheduled in the first quarter, including the European Film Market, Sundance, Rotterdam, and South by Southwest, will be virtual.
There are conflicting rumors concerning the format of the Marché du Film in Cannes, but without an in-person market, the independent film world will continue to suffer.
European Film Market
EFM will be held online this year from March 1-5 and will include market screenings and virtual events to imitate those usually held in person.
Virtual attendees will be permitted to screen Berlinale film selections during a two-hour window. These viewing windows are based on the local time zone of the online attendees. Therefore, if a screening is scheduled at 11:00 in Berlin, it will also be available at 11:00 in Los Angeles, London, or Laos.
The Industry Sessions, including networking opportunities, the most valuable aspect of EFM, will be held online over the market’s five days. However, given the nine-hour time difference between Los Angeles and most of Europe, engagement will be minimal and sporadic.
Virtual market badges for EFM are currently available. More information about these sessions will be announced in February and will consist of an opening and closing event of some kind.
Despite production delays and shutdowns, most independent films in Europe managed to wrap physical production in the spring and summer. Many European-based international sales agencies will have full slates on offer at EFM. Additionally, many agencies are representing numerous films currently in production and ready for the presale market.
Above all, sales agencies are anxious to reconnect with buyers to understand the demand in international markets after most cinemas around the world have been shuttered to varying degrees for more than six months.
At the moment, film availability is not an issue, as there are plenty of finished films from 2019 and 2020 that haven’t been released. Instead, there is a severe lack of demand, especially for art-house and more esoteric projects that buyers can’t place in streaming pipelines.
Currently, buyers are not interested in festival films but are searching for films that can appeal to wider audiences, especially as streaming platforms continue to drive the market.
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Independent Films in Cinema
Among enthusiastic producers and sales agents, there is a notion that there is pent-up demand for the cinema-going experience. While this might be the case in select European markets, overall, there is a sense of apathy towards the theater experience, especially with the dumbing down of content by Hollywood and its UK counterparts.
However, as the availability of quality content shrinks, there are enormous opportunities for independent filmmakers, producers, and executives to create and program niche offerings to targeted audiences outside the confines of the mainstream media monoliths.
These opportunities might come at the cost of abandoning or drastically limiting the cinema experience. The goal for buyers and content creators should be the broadest possible dissemination of a film, not getting a limited theatrical release.
The push for a theatrical release is almost always detrimental for the independent distributor after accumulating massive losses on marketing, which are practically never recouped throughout digital and television exploitation.
Regardless, if cinemas return to normal this year, securing screening slots for independent films will be extremely difficult given the backlog of Hollywood fare sitting on the shelf.
Million Dollar Question
Although government grants and rebates liberally support many independent films in Europe, production financing is impossible without private equity.
Shutting down most of the global economy for the majority of 2020 hasn’t trickled down to equity markets yet. Still, many investors are bracing for a recessionary environment in 2021, which will make it much more challenging to raise funds for independent films.
Without a doubt, production budgets, talent salaries, and producer fees will need to be cut significantly.
Virtual film markets are filling the gap for now, but they cannot replace face-to-face interactions, especially when it comes to communicating a film’s vision and potential.
Given that Cannes is the most critical market for the buying, selling, and financing independent films, another virtual market would be catastrophic for the industry.