Green shoots – Why I’m optimistic for the future of indie film in 2021
It is very easy to feel downbeat in the current climate of seemingly never-ending lockdowns. It’s been such a difficult time for so many people and the arts world has been hit harder than most.
The theatre industry has suffered terribly and while the film and television space has been the beneficiary of a largely successful government-backed insurance scheme, shooting in a pandemic has not been without its challenges. Indeed, television has generally fared better than film in this respect – it benefits from being a structurally more secure industry with established broadcasters at the top who are able to (and frankly have to!) pony up for additional Covid costs if they want to see top quality content delivered. The independent film industry on the other hand operates on a less secure footing, with projects usually requiring backing by independent private financiers for whom the line between profit and loss is much finer.
With Covid seeing tough restrictions on traditional releases via cinema exhibition, together with the inevitable practical challenges (and increased costs) of filming in a pandemic, it has been a rocky road this winter. However, dig a little deeper and I think there are some green shoots emerging. Here are three I’ve picked out!
Desire for Content
One thing 2020 highlighted is the desire for digital content. Gripping series like The Queens Gambit, The Serpent and Bridgerton have been watched by tens of millions and dominated discussions on Zoom catchups! Meanwhile, films like The Dig (released on Netflix this weekend), The White Tiger (also Netflix), Saint Maud, and Soul (Disney+) have shown that it is not just binge-worthy series which can garner supportive, big living-room audiences. Growth in streamer subscribership brings with it a growth in viewer expectations and that extends to film as well as television. To match those expectations, broadcasters and digital platforms will have to continue to spend and spend big in 2021. Streamers will be aware that users are increasingly searching for diverse content and with that should come new opportunities for indie film producers.
New Forms of Film Finance
There is a real optimism that the growth of SVODs will see better prospects of upfront funding and presales for independent film. This is one of the big challenges the indie film market has faced over recent years. Distributors have been paying less and paying later for films - a trend which is existed long before Covid-19 came along. Indeed, gone are the days where most indie films are able to rely on full financing by a combination of a tax credit and pre-sales at pre-production stage.
Instead, the lack of pre-sales has meant that indie financiers have had to take increasing risk on ‘gap’, or unsecured equity finance. There comes a point at which the gap is so big that it becomes unviable for financiers to invest, particularly as producers have had to build in an additional 10-20% in the budget to cover all the additional Covid paraphernalia this last year. Where it has been possible to get a finance plan signed off, it has often been dependent on the support of public funding or producers agreeing defer or holdback fees – not an approach conducive to a sustainable business.
Things are looking up though. The VOD market offers a potential alternative distribution model for independent films. Moreover, the prospect of pre-selling films to streamers (or potentially streamers fully financing a project from production stage as opposed to licensing finished films) could help to provide a much-needed funding boost to the indie film market. New investment such as Sky’s commitment to release 125 Sky Originals (many of which will be films) over the next year also offers a fantastic opportunity for producers. This compliments the increasing availability of some regional UK funds, such as Screen Yorkshire and Liverpool City Region’s production fund.
Return of the Roaring 20s?
The cinema is not dead. It is facing an unprecedented challenge at the moment and will have to change post-Covid but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Cinemas will inevitably have to focus more on the event and the experience and may become more boutique as a result. But shared experience is something we will crave in 2021 and I see no reason why experiences with friends and family at the cinema won’t be a big part of that as the year goes on!
Speaking of exciting experiences, Jack and I are very proud to be producing a BFI-backed comedy short film ‘The Rev’ this summer. It is about a vicar in the midst of an identity crisis whose imagination runs wild when he's asked to organise a funeral! We’re hugely excited about shooting it but we need your help! We have to raise £18,000 by 19 February – a pretty daunting feat! Please do consider contributing via our Kickstarter – it’s going to be a brilliant, positive, uplifting little film and we’re determined to ensure it brings some light to 2021!