What to watch for in the overseas film industry in 2019:
1. Staying alive
One of the most common refrains I hear from independent sales and distribution companies is how tough it is just to survive these days. As Netflix soars and studios, theaters and audiences continue to gravitate toward sequels, prequels and spinoffs, independent cinema becomes more treacherous territory. The year 2018 saw significant independent film companies go out of business (Global Road), falter (EuropaCorp) or reconfigure and reroute (many smaller international firms have had to do this). In this environment, newcomers such as Solstice will be keenly watched, as will whatever labels former The Weinstein Company exec David Glasser and foreign sales supremo Patrick Wachsberger cook up.
2. Hola, Netflix!
Netflix’s international penetration continues apace: the streaming giant is adding five new overseas subs for every one in the U.S. The company is launching a major production hub in Spain (Netflix’s Spanish-language audience is its second-largest; La Casa De Papel (Money Heist) was a huge hit this year), and it is growing its production footprints in France, London (via some splashy senior hires) and India (earlier this year, CEO Reed Hastings said the “next 100 million [subscribers] for us is coming from India”). Local language productions are a major growth line for Netflix, a trend that will provide opportunity and challenges for national industries. Theatrical receipts dropped this year in Spain and Italy and nose-dived in Germany, so Netflix’s expansion will be watched with a certain level of anxiety. Japan, India, Germany and Brazil are among the markets that could see significant growth in 2019.
3. Will Euro festivals Netflix and chill?
Netflix cast a shadow over the world’s leading film festival again in 2018. A year after Cannes said it wouldn’t take the service’s films in competition, the streamer this year declined the festival’s out-of-competition invite. France’s windowing laws are strict and the country is keen to protect the theatrical experience. Venice’s artistic director Alberto Barbera subsequently embraced the streaming giant, taking six high-profile films, but that led to major backlash from the Italian industry. To date, Berlin has not been a staging post for Netflix movies, and that doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon. Will Netflix be welcomed back to Cannes (will the fest be able to resist The Irishman?) and Venice this year, or will the European biz make a stand?
4. Streaming wars: rollout and pushback
Disney and AT&T are both due to launch major streaming services in 2019, while Apple will surely launch some of the buzzed-about shows it has been working on. Apple’s launch is set to be a global rollout, but the international launch dates for Disney’s and AT&T’s services remain less clear. Outside of China, few international markets have developed their own major streaming services. Instead, we are seeing growing European Union pushback against online titans (see Facebook’s recent grilling in the UK) at a political and legislative level due to concerns over perceived tax avoidance, cultural monopolization and illicit data sharing. That push and pull looks set to ramp up next year.
5. China blues
Ever since China started its box office boom in 2012, it’s been a shape-shifter whose rapid economic growth and political détente presented Hollywood and international markets with significant economic openings, but also has been a confounding bedfellow. China has become a key buyer at film markets, and the territory can still be a major box office boon for studios who recoup 25% from turnstiles. However, after 2017 saw the precipitous fall of Wanda and a government harness on capital flight, its position as a go-to investor hit the skids and some lofty ambitions fell flat in 2018 (see the implosion of Tang Media Partners’ Global Road, Wanda’s exit from Beverly Hills real estate, etc.). Still, we were told to keep an eye on Tencent in 2018 and that was wise advice. Although the Pony Ma-led behemoth was a Tang backer and experienced losses spurred on by a Chinese government crackdown on online gaming, it took a sizable minority stake in David Ellison’s Skydance, teamed with JJ Abrams to launch Bad Robot Games, and made strategic investments in Sony’s smash Venom as well as Paramount’s Bumblebee and the upcoming Top Gun sequel. Elsewhere, Warner Bros’ U.S.-China co-production The Meg was a surprise summer breakout that served as a lesson in wide-appeal partnerships. A sequel is in early development.
As for what’s ahead, China’s crackdown on tax evasion within the entertainment business saw one of its biggest stars — Fan Bingbing – disappear from public view only to resurface months later with a mea culpa and a hefty fine. In the wake of that scandal, regulators are keeping a close eye on film companies, and there is concern the fear of audits will lead to a production slowdown, meaning local product could dry up significantly as early as 2019. If that comes to pass, the question remains: Does China turn to Hollywood and increase the number of quota movies it accepts? It has already padded the end of 2018 to ensure overall year-on-year growth, but welcoming too many studio titles could mean the Middle Kingdom market share dips below 50% — and authorities are loath to see that happen. While the current quota of 34 is oft-cited as a limit, China can increase it at will. Either way, talks between the USTR and China on a new film agreement, which the studios have long hoped would increase revenue splits, remain at a stalemate following President Donald Trump’s trade tirade with the PROC, and there is no indication these negotiations are gearing up any time soon.
Can a new international darling emerge for Hollywood? Saudi Arabia might not be the new frontier some in the film world were hoping it could be (not now at least). Some see Southeast Asia as a particularly fertile growth prospect, and U.S. firms continue to kick the tires on London management and agency businesses.
(Nancy Tartaglione contributed to China Blues)
6. ‘Glocal’ remains an important destination
Audiences are increasingly happy to watch good local-language shows on TV or online. Just look at the global success of series like Gomorrah, Babylon Berlin and Fauda. Sadly, the market for foreign-language films in cinemas is not moving in the same direction. However, the market for remakes of local-language film hits is booming. U.S. and international firms are increasingly on the lookout for remake rights to local successes that can be updated and tweaked to suit different markets. Companies such as CJ Entertainment, Ivanhoe and Filmsharks are among those plowing successful furrows in this space.
7. Festivals shake-up
The coming year will see major changes afoot at leading festivals the world over. Dieter Kosslick, Berlin’s artistic director since 2001, will oversee his final Berlinale. Locarno’s Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek will assume the reins in Berlin, with Lili Hinstin taking over in Locarno. Kim Yutani is in place for her first Sundance as director of programming following the departure of longtime programmer Trevor Groth last year. Toronto in 2018 added Joana Vicente as co-head following the departure of longtime CEO Piers Handling, and has also added more women programmers to its team. Meanwhile, Tricia Tuttle has taken over from Clare Stewart at the London Film Festival. The winds of change are blowing through the festival landscape and many are keen to see what direction these vitally important events go with new blood at the helm.
8. UK & France in flux
Two major European powers are in flux. UK box office and admissions are surging and the country is readying a handful of new shooting facilities to help drive its inward investment boom. On one level, the picture is promising. But there are also major challenges looming such as the potential impact of Brexit and increasing polarization in the market. Six U.S. studios accounted for more than 85% box office market share in 2018; not one movie from an indie distributor cracked the top 25. It’s hard for local indies to thrive in such a market and a number have bitten the dust. France, long considered Europe’s biggest theatrical market, is experiencing its own challenges. Luc Besson’s once vaunted EuropaCorp is on its knees, Wild Bunch has needed to refinance, Pathé found itself the subject of an embarrassing and costly online sting, while Vivendi-owned StudioCanal continues to rejig its executive ranks and focus. With industry totems shaken, civil unrest led to the temporary closure of some of France’s cinemas, and the country’s strict media chronology laws mean it is one of the few global holdouts against Netflix’s day-and-date model, something that could be seen as a positive or a negative.
9. Whose story is it, anyway?
Thankfully, many in the film industry now acknowledge the need for more gender, racial and social diversity on screen and in the business. Progress has been slow, but there are green shoots of change in some areas. There is a new and growing frontier of concern in this necessary battleground: Who should be able to tell which stories? The debate has been amplified by Belgian trans drama Girl, a film about a trans experience, told by a cis gender man and star. The film has found critical acclaim but also a backlash from trans critics. Cultural shifts are shaking up industry norms and generating welcome opportunities for new voices. At the same time, the question of who should or shouldn’t be able to tell certain stories is becoming an increasingly complex and important one, creatively, financially and reputationally.
10. Fox-Disney merger
The shape of things to come remains unclear. These studios boast sizable and successful international teams, and jobs may still be in the balance. Rivals will be looking on in interest at release calendars, potential departures and how the new mega-studio will prioritize.
11. Eventize me
The global theatrical successes of docs such as Burn the Stage: The Movie, Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old continue to prove the value of event cinema. As theaters add bars, food offerings and comfort tiers, the market for event-style releases is growing, with ballet, stage plays, musicals and sporting events all on the menu. Who will be the next entrants to this lucrative space?
12. Blockchain, block party?
Blockchain continues to be a watchword in Hollywood and beyond. The desire for transparency is growing in step with the secrecy of streaming platforms (Netflix in particular), and companies are experimenting with new accountancy models in a bid to shore up their assets and clients. Even films are being sold at markets using blockchain. In recent weeks I’ve spoken to multiple international firms looking to launch blockchain-based services for the industry and a number of blockchain-based content platforms are due to launch in 2019. But will they take off in a meaningful way?