WME indie chefs Deborah McIntosh and Alex Walton on Cannes, Netflix and movie sales – The Hollywood Reporter
Deborah McIntosh and Alex Walton are veterans of the Croisette, but this year marks their first Cannes Film Festival at the helm of WME Independent.
WME Independent brought domestic and international film sales and financing advisory services back to the agency following its separation from Endeavor Content. (WME’s parent company Endeavor has agreed to divest at least 80% of its stake in Endeavor Content under the terms of a 2021 deal with the WGA. South Korean media giant CJ ENM has since bought a stake majority.)
After establishing their new operation in October – after two years of virtual markets – the two are looking forward to a return to the south of France. “I’ll never forget the first virtual market, where you just turn off your zoom and go back and you’re still home. And you’re like, ‘That’s not why I signed up,’” laughs McIntosh.
Ahead of their return to Cannes – where they represent film rights such as the Casey Affleck-Laurence Fishburne vehicle slingshota modern version Hamlet with Riz Ahmed and the Pakistani title joyland – executives spoke to THR about the benefits of being in-house, Netflix’s buying power following recent subscriber issues and the success of A24 Everything everywhere all at once could mean for the market.
How was the transition out of Endeavor Content and was there anything you wanted to change strategy-wise when launching WME Independent?
Deborah McIntosh: A lot has changed since we became Endeavor Content and a lot has changed at Endeavor Content. So we are in some ways playing on a new slate of how to be inside the agency again. We also have a very unique additional aspect to our business in that we are an international sales entity alongside a film packaging and national sales group. All other agencies have this last part, but do not have the first from the international sales company. We capitalize on this capability within the agency, bringing multiple projects to market where we manage global sales. We are always willing and able to partner with Film Nations and Protagonists and Rocket Sciences if we choose.
Alex Walton: If you are a production company and a sales team, there is a natural conflict. You shouldn’t always just make movies that we can sell. Now being a sales team associated with an agency, our role is really to nurture distributors, trying to find things that we think there is a good audience for.
How important is it to keep global rights available to potential streaming buyers?
McIntosh: Every film has a unique set of things that need to be addressed when it comes to raising financing and deciding how to handle sales. Yes, there are certain types of movies where we all collectively lean into the strategy of leaving as much of the open world as possible. But with Apple being the one real exception (who) really doesn’t like territories being taken off the table, it’s possible to pre-sell individual movie-focused international territories and strike a streamer deal domestically. . We’ve been navigating this for a while now. The pandemic has set that up. For example, we have always known about The lost girl if we were pre-selling multiple territories, which we were doing, that would be something we would navigate if we were selling to a streamer. And we sailed on it.
Is Netflix’s poor quarterly earnings report and subscriber issues something you’re considering entering the market?
Walton: Netflix has a huge market share in the streaming world, I think we always have to keep that in mind. Netflix has been openly talking about less is more for some time. They’ve positioned themselves as being what they’re looking for in general, whether it’s acquisitions or pre-buying movies, so I don’t think recent news is going to affect that strategy. They certainly still have the capacity to be very competitive.
What about Amazon and MGM? Do you have any indication if they will buy independently of each other after the acquisition?
McIntosh: We’ve been blessed with a lot of traffic and already being in the flow with Amazon and MGM on different fronts. Since the merger was cleared, they’ve been more transparent about talking to each other about certain types of negotiations, but I think it’s going to remain a bit of a black box for us so they can stay in the best position to negotiate.
Walton: We’re in very close conversation with them as well, and it certainly seems like there are a lot of real synergies between the two companies – Prime and the wonderful depth of the MGM library. The way they deal with different rights can actually bring real strength to the common society.
As the industry continues to emerge from the pandemic, do you anticipate increased interest from traditional theatrical distributors?
McIntosh: It’s amazing that A24 had so much success already at the start of the year with a title that could have easily come and gone. But they worked their magic and got a hit on their hands with Everywhere. It won’t be the only one this year that isn’t a superhero movie or franchise. We are definitely trying to get more products like this to market through these types of distributors.
Walton: Not only at the national level, but also at the international level, [theatrical distributors] have been very fluid throughout the pandemic and many are stronger than they were pre-pandemic because they can move so quickly. Neon, domestically, is a good example of a big-buy company that could go straight back to its historic high-end VOD model that Tom Quinn long pioneered. In recent markets, we’ve seen a lot of acquisitions of standalone independents, nationwide, which is nice to see again.
What does movie success look like? Everything everywhere all at once signal to buyers?
McIntosh: In many ways, it shows that there are finished films available that we will sell that will play well in person. Invest to attract the audience, to see this type of product, because it will boost your business. It’s great to have a success story like that right now. I hope there are more bullish distributors, and I think there certainly are, who still believe in this pattern. Whether you’re a hybrid opportunity, like Searchlight buying for Hulu and still able to premiere theatrically in a way that fits their studio model over the last 20 years, or Focus buying something for Peacock, we’ll see a lot of really interesting models are emerging this year. I hope they continue to buy things that fit a new paradigm for the industry so people have things to see. There’s a lot of chatter at CinemaCon that there just isn’t enough in theaters. I don’t disagree with that, as a consumer myself. I like to go see something as often as possible, and some weekends there is nothing.
As you enter the market, have you noticed any trends in terms of the types of projects, whether in terms of genre or budget, that buyers are looking for?
Walton: I don’t see a trend. But home entertainment is always evolving. The theatricals programmer with $20 million P&A, these movies are still in the making, they just aren’t backed by $20 million P&A. With the evolution of the window, it actually makes those movies a little more possible. It’s certainly the kind of movies that home entertainment platforms or buyers, be it TV stations or streaming platforms, are eager to have in their lineup.
Given that the last two years have seen changes in the distribution of films at the eleventh hour, are filmmakers more active in articulating what they want to see in terms of a distributor?
In our experience, they have always been active. We have always done everything we can to marry their hopes and dreams for their films with the market and with our distribution options. Negotiation of the agreement for Who passedfor example, early January 2021, [we were asking]: “What could the rest of 2021 look like in this pandemic world?” We had a difficult choice to make between [a Netflix] partnership and a few theatrical actors who really wanted to lean into that. It was important to Rebecca [Hall, the writer and director of the movie,] that she had some kind of life for the film in theaters while still playing at festivals. We were really able to lean on Netflix to get this movie into different awards campaigns and into theaters. For Belfastwhen Alex and his team sold it to Focus, it was extremely important to [Kenneth Branagh] that this film, on a global scale, as much as possible had a theatrical exposure. Focus managed to find the right deal for this opportunity. Our goal here is to make everyone happy, especially with the writers at the center of these films.
How do you want to see WME Independent grow?
Walton: Our ability to have close synergy within our own agency is obviously key. It’s like having a hundred producers sitting on the floor below you. Especially in our very early stages now, we need to illustrate ways in which we can add value to other parts of the business. We helped them with a number of music-based things and a number of sports-based things. For example, we recently participated in the sale of a major football documentary from one of our clients to FIFA.
McIntosh: What we really want to focus on over the next 18 months is to be the fastest growing version of a talent agency’s packaging and sales group. Our pipeline, as evidenced by our slate at Cannes this year, is going to be massively eclectic and diverse. We are one of the only international sales operations not attached to a studio with its own funding. I think that gives us real leverage. This means that we will continue to be eclectic in what we do.