AFM 2020 preview: Indies get resourceful to survive virus crisis

Adapting, staying open to opportunities and being prepared to take calculated risks are the name of the game as the world heads into the last major global film market of 2020.

In every way that sounds like any other year, except circumstances are forcing everyone to try and raise their game as they fight to stay afloat. Faced with a global health crisis like none in living memory, traditional revenue streams have been decimated by an unpredictable pandemic that holds an industry and many parts of the world hostage.

Nearly six months on from a virtual Cannes Marché and accompanying agency-led initiative that many deemed a resounding success, the American Film Market (AFM) prepares to debut online and attendees are hopeful that, like the postponed Cannes market activities, business will be done.

Cinemas have reopened since the summer, although many in Europe are reducing their hours of operation or closing again as a second wave of the coronavirus sets in, bringing with it tighter restrictions, curfews and national shutdowns.

China has performed well and local content is thriving at cinemas. Chinese box office has overtaken North America for the first time this year, and a third wave of the virus is ravaging parts of the US, where cinemas in Los Angeles and New York remain closed.

The Hollywood studios have abandoned 2020, yet there have been pockets of indie success. After We Collided is approaching $50m worldwide through Voltage Pictures licensees and is the independent hit of the year, while STX’s Greenland — dispatched to PVoD and HBO Max for US audiences — has grossed more than $33m internationally. Solstice Studios’ Unhinged, which earned a respectable $20m in North America, has grossed roughly the same internationally.

“There have been a good number of theatrical successes out of the independent market,” notes Voltage Pictures president and COO Jonathan Deckter. “There are holes in the theatrical market that we’re trying our best to fill.”

After We Collided, the sequel to $70m global box-office hit After, was always going to be Voltage’s big ticket this year. The third and fourth instalments of the franchise — based on the Anna Todd book series — have been filming in Bulgaria, and have mostly pre-sold.

Besides the YA adaptation, Voltage has found success by being more opportunistic than usual. For example, it picked up sales (excluding Italy) and reported a good response to Eagle Pictures’ YA romcom Out Of My League, a rare foreign-language film for the company and its first Italian-language tale.

Voltage’s genre title Follow Me has generated more than $4.7m at the box office, including $800,000-plus in Benelux through Dutch FilmWorks, roughly $350,000 via Studio­canal in Australia, typically not a genre market, and more than $1.7m through Capelight in Germany, the film’s success story to date.

Territories remain available on Follow Me, which Deckter notes might not have received the kind of theatrical attention it has garnered in any other year stacked with studio tentpoles. “It’s a great opportunity for distributors to be creative and experiment, and that’s what independent distributors do,” he says. Year-on-year, Voltage expects to finish 2020 ahead of its pre-coronavirus forecasts.