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Film Festivals Will Still See Market Activity, But Here’s How They’ve Changed

As Tribeca begins, some buyers and agents are meeting in person. Others are sticking to Zoom. This could be the future.

“Bernstein’s Wall”


For many distributors and sales agents, the Tribeca Festival — which kicks off Wednesday — marks a major milestone: The first American festival in over a year offering an in-person venue to make deals for finished films. But the dealmaking will mirror the festival itself, which will offer in-person programming across the New York City’s five boroughs as well as a robust online component for out-of-towners.

The decentralized festival means that this year, Tribeca won’t be defined by making the daily trek to Manhattan to watch films and take meetings. New York-based agents and buyers say they’re looking forward to meeting in person and leveraging the long-awaited return of word-of-mouth buzz. But many in Los Angeles are still relying on Zoom and the festival’s online platform to do their work.

Maria Zuckerman, head of Topic Studios, has three films at the festival, all for sale: the Vanessa Kirby-starring “Italian Studies,” Leonard Bernstein deep-dive documentary “Bernstein’s Wall,” and “Dear Mr. Brody,” a documentary about hippie millionaire Michael Brody, Jr. that saw glowing reviews out of the virtual SXSW program in March.

“For me personally, I’m going to be doing meetings in person — obviously being very cautious about how we do them. I feel like everyone is always checking, ‘Are you comfortable? Are you doing in-person meetings or not?’,” she said. “It’s such a personal choice at this moment.”

For sales agents, casual, in-person conversations with buyers help paint a more complete picture of the market that can help shape sales strategies compared to getting down to business in Zoom calls one 30-minute block at a time.

While this year’s Tribeca is far from a pre-pandemic normal, it actually may represent an early blueprint for how the industry will operate move forward, particularly for non-top-tier festivals. New York-based press and in-person audiences will build excitement and a pressure-cooker sales environment, while carefully executed virtual premieres and sales presentations will make the experience convenient for those on the West Coast and overseas.

“We’re still basically looking at Tribeca as a virtual festival from a sales market standpoint,” said ICM sales agent Oliver Wheeler. “We’re approaching this in the way that we approached Sundance and South By, which is by using all the tools that we’ve learned over the last two years to make it competitive and create some urgency, even though it’s essentially still virtual.”

For ICM, those strategies successfully included offering extended footage in a tight screening window for Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.” That plan led to a bidding war and the project landing at Amazon ahead of last year’s hybrid edition of TIFF.

The agency’s Tribeca titles include two executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, both of which are pandemic-set. Chanel James and Taylor Garron’s “As of Yet” stars Garron (who also wrote the script) as a woman navigating life inside her New York apartment. Roshan Sethi’s “7 Days” is a romantic comedy that forces an unlikely couple in an apartment together for a week after an awkward date pre-arranged by their old-fashioned Indian parents. Sethi, an oncologist, co-created Fox’s “The Resident” while he was finishing his own residency.

Another pandemic title, the two-volume “With/In,” features a collection of iPhone-shot short films from Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Rosie Perez, and more. Repped by UTA, the title comes after the success of Bo Burnham’s acclaimed “Inside,” a recent Netflix release that similarly showed audiences what a familiar creator with a DIY canvas can do.

Documentaries, as usual, are among the strongest titles on offer at Tribeca. Among them are “Long Promised Road” (ICM), Brent Wilson’s documentary about The Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson that features the musician and Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine driving around Southern California, with Wilson as DJ.

Others are “Dear Mr. Brody” and Oscar-winner Megan Mylan’s Syrian refugee doc “Simple As Water” (both repped by Cinetic). All three are among the 2020 Tribeca official selections that the festival is screening this year.

Tribeca comes amid promising recent box office results. As IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann reported, a $69 million domestic gross last weekend represented 42 percent of the gross from the same week in 2019. Signs are pointing to further improvement.

“I think Tribeca benefits from having a lot more market optimism,” said Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa. “You’re seeing it with the box office this weekend. People are willing and enthusiastic to return to movie theaters. It’s all really good for Tribeca, in terms of buyers’ mental state.”

Theatrical buyers, particularly those who waited out the pandemic entirely, should be encouraged by these early signs of rebound. Meantime, Paramount+ and its associated ViacomCBS siblings are expected to ramp up aggression as the company prepares for its ambitious goal of releasing one new movie every week on the fledgling streaming service in 2022. All of that means there will be plenty of money going around, however it’s spent in the weeks ahead.

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