Christmas is days away, so it’s time for an end of year review. What were the top trends in film distribution in 2015? From boxing movies to biopics, piracy problems and star shortages, the market keeps changing in the traditional film distribution world.

I spent this year on the film distribution and finance circuit, working with distributors and production companies to find the best content out there. Here’s my view from the inside on 2015’s top trends and hot projects.

Theatrical or Bust

2015 was a soft year for acquisitions. Distributors continue to be cagey and considered in the films they pick up. They’re looking for that perfectly packaged project. Given an uncertain market where the indies have to compete the studio franchise juggernauts, buyers were looking for strong theatrical movies that could stand up at the box office.

What does that mean? Right script, right cast, right director & producing team, with a sharp hook and a clearly defined audience profile.

Hot projects in 2015 that ticked the boxes were Tom Ford’s Lynchian second feature Nocturnal Animals which scooped a $20 million distribution deal with Focus and Universal at Cannes after Ford’s electrifying pitch.

Premium action continues to smash sales. Sierra Affinity’s spy thriller The Coldest City with Charlize Theron sold out worldwide, cementing her action star status. John Wick director David Leitch helms and there’s an amazing fight sequence I’m dying to see on the big screen.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge flick 478 nearly sold out globally at AFM and The Commuter, StudioCanal’s Liam Neeson was picked up by Lionsgate for the US and will no doubt have more deals announced by Berlin.

Scorching Cannes hit comedy Bad Moms slid in market value from May. Originally presented with Lesley Mann starring and Judd Apatow producing, the film fell in value when they both pulled out due to scheduling conflicts. The movie’s going ahead, with The Hangover writer/director duo Jon Lucas and Scott Moore still on board, Mila KunisChristina Applegate and Kristen Bell starring and STX taking US distribution in place of Paramount.

Feel good film A Street Cat Named Bob, based on the best selling book, racked up impressive presales, with distributors banking on a true life cute cat story to bring in the crowds.

There were also some hot high concept horrors from seasoned directors including In The Tall Grass from Vincenzo Natali based on a short story written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill at Cannes, and Joe Dante’s Labrinitus which caused a bidding frenzy at AFM, even without confirmed cast.

Boxers and biopics

As with every year, there were microtrends in the market. 2015 was the year of the boxing movie and the biopic. Box office results so far were mixed. Southpaw underperformed, despite the buzz about Gyllenhaal’s performance, but Warner Brothers’ Creed is already punching above expectations on domestic alone, with rumours of a Stallone supporting actor Oscar nod.

2016 will see the release of Hands Of Stone, Aaron Eckhart and Miles Teller starrer Bleed For This, and The Bleeder, all inspired by true stories and gunning for awards.

It wasn’t just boxers getting the true life treatment. There were a run of biopic pre-sale projects including Callas about Maria Callas, Lizzie Borden, The Rebel In The Rye about JD Salinger and political pics LBJ, Elvis & Nixon, Reagan and thriller Felt about FBI agent Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, the whistleblower in the Watergate scandal.

The logic is, these are all topics with some degree of audience pre-awareness, making them easier to market. Not all will get off the ground. As always, script, cast and package all come into play for success and I suspect we might be reaching saturation point on the biopic drama.

Piracy Problems

Piracy remains a huge issue for the traditional film distribution world. Still struggling from the loss of home entertainment revenues and falling TV license fees, distributors have been hit hard by digital revenue’s failure to make up the shortfall and piracy undercutting income.

One of the distributors I work with saw their digital revenues fall by 80% in the past quarter thanks to piracy streaming site Popcorn Time operating in their territory.

It’s the main reasons distributors are so focused on theatrical content. They need that window to make a film financially viable. Piracy also becomes a factor for acquisitions. How likely is the audience for a film to pirate the content? Teens are digitally savvy and unafraid to download whereas older audiences are the last of the true believers when it comes to paying for tickets, hence the popularity of projects like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel from financiers through to distributors.

Script and Stars Shortages

On the sales agent side, I had the same conversation over and over again with the top tier companies. There’s a huge shortage of quality scripts. They’re crying out for content and the competition for hot projects is crazy. The major talent agencies are the gatekeepers not only for hot scripts, but the stars that can make a film fly.

There are potentially 15 names that work internationally and can make a film a bankable theatrical bet.  With global office now 70% foreign and 30% US, most films live and die by their foreign performance.

However, those top tier stars are swimming in choice. From serious paychecks as part of a studio franchise, to rich meaty roles on television, theatre and their own passion projects, they’ve got options. The names you need are booked up for YEARS. Getting them to commit to an independent movie is hard.

Chatting to sales companies, I kept hearing about projects that had finance but they couldn’t lock in the right cast to make it viable.

Independent film used to make stars. See Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. Now, it’s only studios who can afford to take the risk of casting unknowns, backed by the IP power of known brands and multimillion dollar marketing machine.

TV is now the new route for actors to earn their commercial credentials. With millions of eyeballs worldwide tuning into HBO, Netflix et al, a hit show can catapult an actor to the top of the casting list. The trick is making the transition into a bona fide bankable movie star.

Netflix Flexes Its Muscle

 2016 is going to be a huge year for Netflix. Netflix have been strategic and aggressive all through 2015. The media machine is rolling out to 200 countries in the next two years and has over $5 billion to spend on content creation and acquisition, making them a huge buying force at the markets. They have deep pockets for the right content and can set the terms for the deals.

They hit the headlines earlier this year after dropping their deal with Epix, giving up US rights to films like Transformers: Age of Extinction, World War Z and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. I was interviewed by BBC Worldwide about what that means for the market in August.

Netflix wants exclusive content they can stream in all the territories they operate in. For independent movies, they’re looking for a global buyout for films that hit their criteria. They’re also experimenting with theatrical windows with Beasts Of No Nation, qualifying it for an awards run and the upcoming Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2.

For 2016, Netflix have premium content in the pipeline thanks to a landmark deal with Disney. Ted Sarandos announced details on the Netflix blog:

“Starting next year, we will be the exclusive US pay TV home of the latest theatrical movies from the The Walt Disney Company, including Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel movies. The majority of these films will arrive on Netflix faster than traditional arrangements had previously allowed.”

That’s huge. It means exclusive early digital access to Star Wars, Captain America: Civil War and Finding Dory to name a few. That’s how you drive subscribers. It’s a cliche but it’s true – content is king.

For the long game, they’ve fostered relationships with key talent with proven audiences. Upcoming projects include films from Ricky Gervais, Angelina Jolie, Adam Sandler and a four-movie deal with Duplass brothers.

Netflix’s major strength is the sheer amount of data they have. Every day, their 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries watch 100 million hours of film and TV, which tells them exactly who’s watching what, forming the foundation of their acquisitions and commissioning strategy.

With such a broad subscriber base, Netflix gets the importance of catering to the niches that will drive their audiences to subscribe, whether that’s serious prestige pictures, Korean dramas, manga, documentaries or more. Next year, you can bet they’ll continue to disrupt film distribution as we know it.

Happy holidays. See you all in 2016!

Photo Credit: Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

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