Encouraging and Challenging – Marc Hairapetian on independent cinema, millionaires, billionaires and the JETS Panel 2022 “From film financing to sales”.

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From 1952 to 1987, “Journalists ask, politicians answer” was the title of Werner Höfer’s “Internationaler Frühschoppen” (International Morning Punch), the legendary discussion round of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, which was always broadcast on Sundays on German television (today: Das Erste). At the first JETS panel of 2022, the headline would have to be: “Journalists and filmmakers ask, world distributors and film funders answer”. I had the honour of moderating the event, which was a high-powered affair. The list of panellists was top-class: For the film funding agencies, Stephanie Marschner (HessenFilm, Germany), Francesca Accinelli (Telefilm Canada), Onke Dumeko (nfvf , South Africa), Jochen Coldewey (nordmedia, Germany) and for the first time Roland Teichmann from ÖFI (Austrian Film Institute). Speaking for the world distributors were: Anick Pourier (WaZabi Films, Canada), Colette Aguilar (Moonrise Pictures, Spain), Sophie Green (Bankside Films, United Kingdom), James Fler (Raven Banner Entertainment, Canada), Patrick Ewald (Epic Pictures Group, USA), Brian Nitzkin (Myriad Pictures, USA), Todd Brown (XYZ Films, Canada) and Antonio Exacoustos (The Playmaker, formerly Arri Media International, Germany). The panel had a motto that was on the one hand logical, but on the other hand very complex: “From film financing to sales. What are the challenges for filmmakers and how can a film and media funding institution together with world distributors/distributors ensure that a film pays off in the current situation and beyond?”

To start with, I pose two further questions that should have both “parties” pulling in the same direction if possible: After financing a film, how can a world sales agent ensure the sale of a film through various channels? And: Do film funding organisations help in this distribution process? Antonio Exacoustos, who is based in Munich, finds Germany a “difficult territory” for the desirable alliance, since hardly any international film projects are funded here. But all the more German ones. And then he says the thoroughly provocative sentence: “There are simply too many German films! His colleagues from the world distributors as well as the funding agencies see things differently. Exacoustos goes on to say that arthouse productions are promoted more than, for example, “genre films, which The Playmaker stands for”. If more commercial projects received better funding from now on, his film distribution company could be in a better position in two years.

Todd Brown, who was executive producer with the Indonesian-made Iko Uwais films “The Raid” (2011, budget only 1.1 million US dollars! ) and “The Raid 2”, arguably the two best martial arts films of the new millennium, and also otherwise focuses on not exactly squeamish genre spectacles like “Blood Quantum” (2019) or “Yakuza Princess” (2021), although he is a peaceful family man with a wife, children and cats, has a different approach: “As a producer and world distributor, you have to be very focused on the questions: ‘Who are you actually doing this for?’ Where is the audience for this now?'” The market had changed a lot – and not just since the Corona pandemic. Streaming services would now hold the reins. Even cheaply produced flicks would require not only a logistical effort, but above all an enormous amount of time, with thousands of sketches for stoyboards. That’s why he once again sharpened what he had already said, taking the filmmakers on board when he questioned himself with them: “Where do I get the audience for my story? And: How do they find me?” Only then should they talk about the budget.

Despite the changed situation with the search for other distribution channels in which we find ourselves in 2022, Roland Teichmann of the ÖFI “still considers the theatrical release of a film enormously important”. He is also concerned with the thought of where and with whom the audience will be in 2023 and 2024, that is, “hopefully after the pandemic”: “I don’t see big differences between world distributors and funding agencies. We think in a similar way and pull in the same direction per se.”  Contrary to Antonio Exacousto’s criticism of the German funding system, the Austrian Film Institute would be very keen to launch Austrian productions at international film festivals. “Reputation” would be the first step in this, and if you could then sell them worldwide, “all the better”. He is relatively relaxed about it:  “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t control everything in the film business.” The filmmakers would not be interfered with in the realisation. However, he admits, “We don’t support the distributors directly. This should be regulated by the market itself.”

For Onke Dumeko from South Africa, because of licensing, “creative long-term effects are more important” than aiming for a quick buck. Sophie Green from the UK does not see “much of a profit margin in funded films anyway”. Of course, exceptions prove the rule here too.

Anick Pourier from WaZabi Films openly admits what many are thinking: “We didn’t know the pandemic was coming and Netflix would hit like this!” On the other hand, none of the distributors would have guessed at the time that “a then 18-year-old kid” like Xavier Dolan would establish an enthusiastic and, above all, loyal following worldwide with his very personal, often autobiographical independent films. From many quarters, one would have heard beforehand, “What he does is not profitable.” But the belief in his artistic ability had been at the forefront of their minds, and the relative commercial success had then been a pleasing by-product. Since 2020, the world distributor, who stands rock solid behind his filmmakers, has been plagued by entirely different concerns: “If you want to be a millionaire in the film business, you have to be a billionaire in investing!” A “Mission Impossible” then for world distributors (and funding agencies too)? Not for Francesca Accinelli: Telefilm Canada is known for financing small but fine film projects that enjoy worldwide recognition.

With more than 100 filmmakers following the panel online in real time, I take the liberty of asking another question to distributors and funders: What are you both doing to ensure that the young cinematic talents can not only realise their films, but also earn some money with them? Pourier puts it drastically: “We bust our butts for you to support you!” They would work just as hard to make the artists’ visions come true. Despite all the stubbornness one has to have to pull something off, mutual trust is enormously important. She has been working in the field of world distribution for over 20 years. She can already judge whether an independent film is suitable for use at an international film festival or whether this is still a bit too early for the creator.

Whether art or commerce – for Antonio Exacoustos, every jury of a funding agency should include at least one person from a world distributor in order to be able to better assess marketability and whether pure distribution to domestic cinemas or worldwide exploitation would be an option. Smiling, he says: “The JETS initiative, which is primarily about promoting co-productions, thinks internationally right away.” Similar to the streaming giant Netflix: it would produce a lot in Germany, but mainly for the global market.

Roland Teichman can reassure him: “There is always a person from a world distributor on our five-member jury.” “That’s why your films are more marketable internationally than the German ones,” he praises Felix Austria while simultaneously rebuking the land of poets and thinkers. Stephanie Marschner of HessenFilm, on behalf of her guild, naturally doesn’t want to take this lying down. She “emphatically welcomes” the development of joint strategies by the funding agencies and world distributors. Jochen Coldewey even admits that in the jury of nordmedia, the focus is more on “distributability” than on the content of a film project. So world distributors and funding agencies are not as far apart as Antonio Exacoustos feared!

Brian Nitzkin from the USA takes up the simple question “Who is your audience? Because sometimes cinema-goers would discover a film for themselves, like at the renowned Sundance Festival, which was brought to life by none other than acting legend (and occasional director) Robert Redford. If an independent production is well received there, its further path is actually already made internationally and the world distributors can sell it to numerous countries. And then there is something particularly close to his heart: “If we had had a discussion like this one we are having here earlier, it would have been enormously helpful for all concerned.”  “Promoting and demanding” is not only the motto of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who fell into disrepute because of his loyalty to Putin. While the unspeakable “Hartz IV” policy has been reformed only slightly since the change of government, the chances are good – also thanks to JETS – that world distributors and funding agencies will approach each other even more: Above all for the benefit of filmmakers!

Marc Hairapetian is a freelance journalist (Frankfurter Rundschau, junge Welt, among others) and has been the editor of Spirit – Ein Lächeln im Sturm, the cultural magazine he founded, since the age of 16.