Sony Classics, Cornerstone chiefs talk industry challenges at Jerusalem

By Matt Mueller | Screen International

Dylan Leiner, Alison Thompson discussed the distribution, VOD and the future of cinema culture during a festival panel.

Dylan Leiner, EVP acquisitions and production at Sony Pictures Classics (SPC), and Alison Thompson, head of sales company Cornerstone Films, shared their experiences as industry heavyweights at Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday (July 8), with Philippa Kowarsky, head of sales company Cinephil, moderating.

The panel was titled ‘Commercial Distribution of Documentary Cinema’ but Leiner and Thompson used the forum to address wider challenges in the industry, including the changes wrought by VOD and the future of cinema culture and curation.

Thompson, who ran Focus Features International for eight years before launching Cornerstone, which helped take Asif Kapadia’s Amy [pictured] from initial sales pitch at Cannes 2013 to best documentary Oscar winner, agreed her industry was in the midst of painful reconfiguration. But she also expressed confidence that “the nadir” had been reached, and felt optimistic about what the next five years will bring.

“The world of independent film is as tough as it has ever been,” she said. “But it reminds me now of when I first started out in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I feel as if we’re going back to basics. It’s becoming purer, it’s becoming about the quality of films again. I think we’re going to see a raising of the bar in cinema.”

Leiner, who joined SPC in 1994, noted that his company has capitalised on the documentary boom of recent years overseeing successful theatrical releases in the US for titles like The Gatekeepers and Searching For Sugar Man – films he said would never have achieved the profile they enjoy in the market had they not been released theatrically.

He also praised the crucial role sales agents, which are under pressure in the digital landscape, play in marrying good projects with the right distributor across territories.

“The really good sales agents work very hard to find the right distribution partners for these films all over the world,” said Leiner.

Despite the disruption to the traditional theatrical release market by the rise of streaming giants like Netflix, Leiner pointed out that SPC has no current plans to enter the day-and-date market with its releases, preferring to continue banking on the rewards of a traditional windowing model.

“As autonomous as we are within our own company [Sony Pictures Entertainment], we’re still part of that bigger company,” he said. “Our films qualify for the pay-output deal that our studio is a part of. That’s something we worked very hard to be a part of. Our business model has evolved and continues to evolve so it’s not to say that we wouldn’t consider something in the future, but at the moment we have a [windowing] business model that is working for our films. And the films that we pursue are really theatrically driven films.”

On a related note, Leiner said that how to build film-maker careers and a future cinematic culture are the “big paranoias right now for the industry”.

“What is the future prognosis?” he asked. “They’re troubling questions. Film-makers coming up now aren’t being given the same kind of education or viewing experience, and that’s one of the key roles that film festivals play now.”

“The onus has to be on the community to help educate film-makers so that film-makers can make educated decisions about what they want for their film when it’s going out into the world,” he added. For some film-makers, a Netflix buyout may be the right option; for personal stories that require more sensitive handling to reach their audience, a theatrical release should still be the preferred route, said Leiner.

“Cinema which has artistic expression, which is what you might call curated - we do have a role to play there,” added Thompson. “None of us know what is going to happen with Netflix, what impact it’s going to have on the theatrical business. My view is that the theatrical experience is here to stay. We like that social experience, but we need to make sure that what we’re showing in cinemas is inspiring people to come back.”