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Amazon’s Festival Stars Program: It’s Bigger, Better, and Still Scary for Indie Filmmakers

Last year, Amazon offered cash bonuses and royalties to festival films willing to self-distribute on Amazon Prime. IndieWire examines how the growing program now looks to the indie world.

Amazon Video Direct

Amazon

As Sundance 2018 dealmaking commences, Netflix and Amazon Prime are in the negotiating rooms — even when they aren’t. Subscription video rights are an increasingly important aspect of an independent film’s distribution value, even if Netflix, Amazon, or another specialty streamer doesn’t buy a film. However, the money they are willing to pay a distributor to own exclusive streaming rights plays a big part in determining a Sundance film’s market value.

Niche films have a hard time accessing those SVOD dollars, but Amazon Video Direct’s Festival Stars program was designed to remove that barrier. Launched at Sundance 2017, it targets the dozens of films that walk away from Sundance without a worthy distribution offer with one-time cash bonuses up to $100,000 and a preferential royalty of $0.30 for every hour the film is streamed on Amazon Prime.

The initial reception wasn’t rapturous. It seemed insulting, coming from a massive corporation looking for ways to lower the price tags on their products. For an indie film costing a million dollars to produce, the terms — specifically, the short window before a Sundance film needed to be on Prime — made it virtually impossible for a film not take a loss. A few, like veteran indie producer Mynette Louie, were willing to publicly slam the program; off the record, countless indie producers seethed at the prospect of how a booming SVOD market could potentially be leveraged against them.

“Ex Libris”

“If I made an ultra low-budget SXSW film for $250,000, yeah I could see doing this,” said the producer of a critically acclaimed 2017 Sundance film. “But I didn’t spend over a year and my investors’ money making a film I love to subsidize Amazon.”

A year later, Festival Stars is being used by a rapidly growing number of festival films, and will likely play a big role in a number of Sundance films’ futures. The Festival Stars deal also has changed, addressing a number of filmmakers’ complaints. More importantly, indies have had time to get a fuller picture of how the program can (and cannot) be a useful tool.

Increased Cash Bonuses

Starting with the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, AVD’s Film Stars Program significantly upped its cash bonuses, which now are as high as $200,000. Here’s how the program evolved:

Sundance 2017 US Dramatic Competition, Premieres: $100,000
Sundance 2017 NEXT and Midnight films: $25,000
Sundance 2018 U.S. Dramatic Competition, Premieres, NEXT and Midnight: $150,000 

Sundance 2017 U.S. Documentary Competition and Documentary Premieres: $75,000
Sundance 2018 U.S. Documentary Competition and Documentary Premieres: $120,000

Totals for fiction features and documentaries can climb to $150,000 and $200,000, respectively, if the films also hand over SVOD international rights for Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany/Austria, India, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and the UK. (It’s $3,000 per additional territory for documentaries, $5,000 each for fiction features.)

"Pop Aye"

“Pop Aye”

Courtesy of Sundance

However, the royalty rate dropped. Last year it was $.0.30 per hour; now it’s $0.20 for U.S. viewers, and $0.10 for international (both of which are higher than the current standard AVD rates of $0.15 and $0.06, respectively). Amazon also removed the annual cap for royalties — not that any film reached it.

A Longer Window

The biggest complaint about the original terms for Festival Stars terms was films needed to begin SVOD exclusivity on Amazon Prime by September 1. As a result, films had to exploit theatrical and VOD within seven months of their festival premieres — nearly impossible, considering the time needed to build word of mouth and audience.

Now, the exclusive SVOD window has been pushed way back: 2018 Sundance films must start their two-year Prime run by July 1, 2019. However, the filmmakers must still accept the offer by March 15, 2018.

AVD’s Rapid Growth

In Sundance 2017, 15 features — mostly from World Cinema, World Documentary, and New Frontiers sections — pioneered the Festival Stars program: “500 Years,” “Axolotl Overkill,” “Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!,” “Family Life,” “Free and Easy,” “Machines,” “Manifesto,” “Marjorie Prime,” Motherland,” “Plastic China,” “Pop Aye,” “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” “I Dream in Another Language,” “The Good Postman,” and “World Without End (No Reported Incidents).”

Ana Asensio Most Beautiful Island SXSW 2017

“Most Beautiful Island”

Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films

AVD made an even bigger splash with its first Festival Stars offer at SXSW 2017, snagging 40 films including Grand Jury Award-winner “Most Beautiful Island.” However, the program’s biggest growth spurt coincided with the increased cash bonuses Amazon handed out at the Toronto International Film Festival, where 100 films opted in. Festival Stars captured nearly 50 percent of the TIFF documentaries, including Fredrick Wiseman’s Oscar-shortlisted “Ex Libris,” and eight of the 12 Platform Films, including Platform Prize winner “Félécite.”

The Algorithm and Transparency

One pitch Amazon makes to filmmakers is while the large cash bonus can be used however they like, it’s a nice chunk of change for a targeted publicity and marketing campaign to build awareness and bring in theatrical and VOD revenues, and eventually royalties, from Amazon Prime.

Kino Lorber and Film Rise each took advantage of the Film Festival Program for their 2017 Sundance acquisitions, but also used AVD to monetize their companies’ vast libraries of thousands of films. Both companies — and it’s important to note, each negotiated its own terms with AVD — have been able to see firsthand the titles that succeed on Prime and those that don’t.

"Manifesto"

“Manifesto”

FilmRise has a library of 7,500 titles and picked up a handful of smaller films at last year’s Sundance, like “Manifesto.” Over the last year, it uploaded over 2,000 titles to AVD. Because AVD is a revenue share deal, FilmRise head Danny Fisher has access to numbers. He’s discovered Amazon Prime’s algorithm rewards films in which the users interact with the film’s Prime page (positive reviews, spikes in viewership), which leads to a title being featured more prominently in Amazon’s curation.

However, for most indie producers there is no transparency. All the AVD users have is a dashboard with a near real-time tally of how many hours their content has been watched. When there is a viewership spike, they can’t trace what brought new viewers to their films or triggered the algorithm to provide a visibility boast. One filmmaking team told IndieWire it had no clue what caused an incredible one-week spike on Prime, before the algorithm cast the film from prominence.

The asset of self-distribution is building, and learning how to build, an organic audience around a film and filmmaker. And while the Amazon algorithm might be great indie equalizer, it is also a black box that disconnects filmmaker and the audience. Amazon takes a hardline approach to sharing data: If social media is the amazing tool for independent filmmakers to build an audience, AVD becomes the wall that severs the tie.

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