Tech

Are Virtual Markets Working For Distributors and Buyers Navigating Coronavirus?

When the film and TV industry emerges from self-isolation to a forever altered landscape, one silver lining will be the online savvy newly gained by traditionally digitally-shy businesses, some of whom have reacted with lightning speed to devise virtual showcases.

A drive towards virtual events initially manifested in early March across disrupted festivals such as CPH:DOX and Thessaloniki, which hosted Zoom-based pitch events. But now, a new wave of business-oriented, distributor-led virtual events need to prove their mettle as the full brunt of canceled April and May markets such as Series Mania, MipTV, L.A. Screenings and Cannes is felt across the industry.

Sony was one of the first studios to reveal plans for a virtual offering in lieu of their annual Screenings event in May, with plans for an on-demand experience showing off new titles such as Hulu comedies “Woke” and “Crossing Swords” and Adrien Brody-fronted horror drama “Chapelwaite.” It’s understood the studio is investing a decent chunk of money into the digital portal, which is currently in the works.

“When we emerge from this, we’ll have learned a lot,” Keith le Goy, president of networks and distribution for Sony Pictures Entertainment, tells Variety. “We need to keep an open mind and make sure we truly absorb the lessons and (are) willing to make changes, be flexible and evolve traditions.”

“There is so much that’s been changing already in our business that we’ve adapted to, and that will continue. Will it accelerate as a result of all this? Probably.”

Studios such as Sony hope fall TV offerings will still garner global buyers, many of whose programming budgets have been hard-hit by the outbreak of coronavirus. For commercial broadcasters, however, one small mercy is that the busiest advertising months of the calendar year generally fall between September and December, when a rebound in ad spend is expected.

In Germany, Beta Film also ploughed ahead with a virtual rendition of its annual Beta Brunch in hopes that buyers are still keen on deal-making. The March 31 event — which opened with a pre-recorded sketch featuring MD Moritz von Kruedener encouraging CEO Jan Mojto to launch an influencer career during lockdown — featured personalized greetings from the entire sales team followed by trailers of new shows, which include “Unidad,” “Cryptid” and “257 Reasons to Live.”

Ultimately, a brunch event that normally draws 500 people at the Majestic in Cannes clocked a virtual audience of 1,500.

Oliver Bachert, executive VP of the “Atlantic Crossing” producer-distributor, says, “For us, the value of a market like Berlin or MipTV is to create buzz and serve as a catalyst to push (shows) forward, so our challenge was how to transfer that to the virtual space.”

Bachert says such digital showcases “cut the crap out of the whole bubble of markets” and allows distributors to address clients “in a straightforward way.”

The challenge, he says, is ensuring the tech — in this case, a secure server infrastructure — holds up. “We used a service provider that normally works with linear broadcasters,” Bachert explains. “You have to invest and organize that properly or else the site would have broken down. You need an infrastructure that adapts to the bandwidth of every single viewer.”

Other mid-sized distributors such as Israel’s Armoza Formats and Italy’s Nexo Digital were also quick to adapt, with dedicated events announced within days of MipTV’s cancellation and uncertainty around the Cannes Film Festival.

“We saw it coming and worked out (a plan) in advance,” explains Armoza Formats boss Avi Armoza, who launched virtual marketplace ArmozaFest the day after Reed Midem pulled the plug on the troubled spring TV event.

The cleverly marketed ArmozaFest largely uses the ITV Studios-backed distributor’s existing infrastructure, bolstered by a schedule of Zoom meetings — “One-to-ones are more effective than big groups, where you can get lost in space,” advises Armoza — and screenings.

While Armoza’s clients are struggling with production at a major standstill, he is innovating with quick turnaround, low-cost formats that require limited crew.

“We’re trying to find creative solutions,” says Armoza. “These are shows people can shoot on their own, or comedies with talent talking to each other remotely.”

The value in a virtual market, says the executive, is having the structure to converse with buyers and get the ball rolling on pre-production, as well as plan for the industry’s inevitable resurrection.

Cryptid

Over at Rome-headquartered Nexo Digital, which co-produces and distributes theatrical content and programming for the global market, CEO Franco di Sarro has also lined up an impressive roster of meetings alongside a virtual screening room.

Sarro, for whom 60% of revenue stems from theatrical sales, says virtual showcases will be a useful year-long resource going forward, but astutely notes that the main takeaway from the Covid-19 lockdown has been to underscore the importance of in-person interaction at markets.

“At the end of the day, real marketplaces will be more efficient than virtual ones,” he opines, noting that film is far more reliant on face-to-face meetings at markets such as Cannes than TV, where the bulk of deal-making is done post-event.

Emmanuelle Namiech, CEO of London-based distributor Passion, which has leaned heavily into a pop-up showcase of its own, echoes Sarro’s observation. “Ultimately, our business remains a relationships business where programming is the product, but people are the key resource.”

For their part, buyers seem to agree. For most, the focus is less on attending virtual events and more on targeted meetings to maximize results — which must be immediate.

Dermot Horan, director of co-productions and acquisitions at Irish broadcaster RTÉ, notes most acquisitions execs are too busy “doing absolute firefighting” to check out distributors’ wares or MipTV Plus, the stand-in digital marketplace launched by organizers within weeks of MipTV’s cancellation.

“Daily work has really ramped up because we all have to fill holes in the schedule with existing content or look to buy more titles. It falls on acquisitions and schedulers to keep the show on the road,” he says, highlighting the grave impact of canceled sporting events such as the Olympics and Euro 2020.

Myriam Lopez-Otazu, VP of content in sourcing and acquisitions for Discovery EMEA, is actively looking for content, albeit not at individual showcases. Instead, distributors come to her.

Discovery — which was to broadcast the Olympics — is navigating a number of stark changes to the schedule, she says. “Productions affected in different markets are leaving certain holes in our slate.”

However, the executive points out that the market is actively looking for content. “Our acquisitions need to continue because, due to delayed productions, we need to fill the grids later in the year with third-party content,” says Lopez-Otazu. “As plans change and the crisis impacts in different ways, we have to revise our plans on a weekly basis.”

Interestingly, Lopez-Otazu, like RTÉ’s Horan, is also revisiting content the business passed on previously, simply due to the fact that these titles are in languages serving key markets where dubbing and subtitling studios are no longer operating.

“Top franchises and content we had passed on before because it didn’t suit can now play a role because they are volume-based, fully delivered shows that fill the holes our productions are leaving. Those shows with languaging assets in Spanish, Italian and German have renewed interest,” she says.

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