Has the war between streaming and theatrical reached détente?
After years defined by no quarter battling over releases, exclusive windows and global rights for the most in-demand independent films — battles fought most fiercely in Cannes — theatrical distributors and online platforms have put down their arms and started to work together.
Martin Scorsese’s hotly-anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon, which premieres out of competition in Cannes on Saturday, is an AppleTV+ production that will roll out in cinemas via Paramount Pictures, a theatrical-streamer co-op Apple will repeat with Ridley Scott’s Napoleon epic, which Sony will bow in cinemas worldwide in November, ahead of its AppleTV+ streaming release. This follows on the successful theatrical bow of Amazon Studios’ sports biopic Air, with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, which Warners released in most of the world, grossing a solid $90 million at the box office before it shifted to Amazon Prime.
“If you were here in Cannes a year or two ago, the narrative was all streaming versus theatrical, that’s all everybody was talking about. But I think the next narrative is streaming and theatrical,” says Richard Gelfond, CEO of Imax, speaking at a luncheon in Cannes on Wednesday. “I think streamers are realizing it’s not just the money [from box office] they get, but the awareness that a theatrical release gets them. I mean last year, Top Gun: Maverick (which had its international premiere in Cannes) was the number one theatrical movie and the number one movie on streaming, because of the awareness it got from being in theaters.”
At Sundance just two years ago, when Apple paid a record-breaking $25 million to buy up global rights to CODA, Sian Heder’s eventual Oscar winner, it sparked anguish and outrage among independent theatrical buyers worldwide. Many of them — Eagle in Italy, Japan’s Gaga, Sun Distribution in Latin America — had pre-bought the crowdpleaser for their home territories, only to see themselves outbid, and bought out, by the deep-pocketed tech giant. There was a concern that the whole business of international pre-sales, where independent distributors bankroll an indie film before it gets made by promising to acquire local rights, could be in danger.
“It was a huge problem, says XYZ head of international acquisitions Todd Brown, “The streamers were taking everything basically, and for the independent all-rights distributors, it was really hard to say what their space even was, if they even would have a business going forward.”
The days of global buyouts aren’t gone entirely — see AppleTV+’s $20 million global deal for John Carney’s Flora and Son, or Amazon’s worldwide buy for Kenneth Dagatan’s Filipino drama In My Mother’s Skin — but they are no longer the default option. While buyers complain of “kill fees” now written into presale contracts, which allow a sales company, after the film is made, to flip a film to a platform for a bigger figure and pay off the indie buyers with minimal fuss, the streamers “have become less aggressive and more careful about what they buy,” notes one veteran independent acquisitions exec. While the major platforms often take worldwide on films they acquire for North America, on the global market, they have become willing to share rights and windows with the indies.
“The platforms, for example, don’t really do big global deals for independent European movies anymore,” says Manon Barat, the former Film Factory Entertainment exec who recently joined XYZ to oversee sales for its freshly-formed genre label New Visions. “So now there are windows for all-rights independent distributors to acquire. You could have a Spanish movie and maybe Netflix will only acquire for the first window in Spain, leaving things open for business with the independents.”
Arthouse streamer Mubi has put combining streaming and theatrical release at the center of its business model. Mubi’s big Cannes deals — picking up Un Certain Regard movie The Delinquents for multiple territories, including North America, the U.K. Italy, and Latin America, taking domestic as well as Turkish, Latin American, and multiple European rights on British filmmaker Molly Manning Walker’s debut feature How to Have Sex — include plans to bow the films in cinemas in key territories, including the U.S. and U.K.
“There are also fewer opportunities to go with one partner which takes worldwide rights,” notes Moritz von Kruedener, managing director at Beta Group, whose film division, Beta Cinema, is selling Helena Bonham Carter starrer The Offing in Cannes. “But this is [actually] a great opportunity for those who can be flexible, and combine partners and financing from multiple sources. I think this is the time for the independents.”