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Our findings from TIFF

Lift-Off Global Network @ TIFF 2019 - key advice from the market and panels

The Mission:

The Lift-Off team took 6 projects to this year’s market at TIFF, meeting with many sales and distribution companies.

The gap between the hard face of the industry and the creative vision of the artists involved is often a hard bridge to cross, yet connecting with the market is vital to the success for finding the right audience for your project.

Lift-Off's agenda at the major film markets is to get Network talent in front of key strategic partners and to generate interest in current or future projects. In this regard, Lift-Off acts merely as an introducer, and this is a service we offer as an application process exclusively for the most talented of the Network membership.

The team had many interesting meetings throughout the week, with conversations still ongoing.

As we did with our findings from Cannes, we want to share some of the main lessons we learned with our Members, so that you all have the most current knowledge and tips from the professionals on the other side of the industry.

The Digital Marketplace:

Unsurprisingly, the digital marketplace came up in our conversations again and again. With the rapidly growing availability (and ease) of alternative content platforms, the theatrical sector of the industry is less forgiving than ever.

This does not need to be bad news though. Whilst it means it has been a tough year on the acquisition market for finished films, upcoming streaming platform launches such as Disney, WarnerMedia, Comcast and Apple, will help in the near future, with all of them surely hungry for content.

Jean-Francois Cavelier (True Media Company) told us how filmmakers should embrace these new methods of consumption. He said with the decline in theater-going, plus a saturated marketplace, “P&A is often 100% of a production budget”. So whilst “theatrical release is the dream, the digital marketplace is a great opportunity” if you understand the streaming services.

Entertainment One also explained the importance they place on looking for films that can have a digital life on VOD, SVOD OR AVOD. They look for work that can “really find audiences in a multitude of ways… with stories that feel universal and aren’t domestic in nature”.

Finding an audience:

This lesson was not news to us, and if you have attended any of our events you will probably have heard us emphasising this before. Find your audience BEFORE you embark on the making of a film.

It can be so much more attainable, and smart, to search for a niche audience. Target a subset audience and then maximise on that. The other benefit of subsets is they can present you with a clearer market route. For example niche platforms like Shutter for Horror.

Abramorama, an independent distribution and marketing company, echoed this, saying that they describe their acquisitions as “‘tribal’ in that they all have pre-existing audiences—fans of a band, supporters of a cause, etc.—and our job is to identify them, inform them, and activate them.”

Personalise your marketing campaign. Ask yourself what do people relate to? Find opportunities to make your marketing more personal and emotionally connecting to the viewer. (Timothy O’Brien - Oration Films).

Ultimately, as a filmmaker, you are more than just one film. You are a brand. In today’s industry you have to be the marketer/ the producer etc... You have to do everything you possibly can to get more eyeballs on your film. If you’re not good at this stuff, make sure you bring on people who are.

Concept, script or completed projects?:

At this market, the vast majority of the companies we met with wanted to be approached to potentially come onboard at script level. This early collaboration is attractive so that they can steer the project throughout its completion, engineering the film's marketing, festival and release strategy.

This is not to say there are not companies that look for completed films, you just need to do the research and approach companies that are interested in the stage you are at with your project. This is something Lift-Off can assist with/ share more guidance on.


We mentioned this in our Cannes findings, but thought it was worth another mention as this (predictably) came up in every meeting.

It’s now obvious that films without big names/ stars will reach only really reach consumers on streaming sites rather than in theaters.

These streaming platforms don’t necessarily require the same “level” of star that traditional sales and distribution agents will be seeking. Sebastian Velmont (Co-Founder of upcoming streaming service Panflix) suggests filmmakers look for alternative cast which can render an equally attractive proposition. Look to collaborate with brands/ models/ influencers. Another key tip from him was to not look for following but engagement, as this is what really counts.

Story and script:

Timothy O’Brien who represents indie films spoke more specifically about what filmmakers on lower budgets can do. When discussing what element other than cast can get the film sold, he said that ultimately it has to be “exceptional” and ideally “able to premiere at a top festival”.

Your screenplay is one of the few things you have total control over, and it is the foundation of your film. It must be the absolute best it can be. Get the best writer. Have the best script!

Jean-Francois Cavelier wants filmmakers to be positive and know that a great script DOES have a chance of attracting big names. He said that you can get agents on the phone and whilst it is difficult for anything to happen without proof of funds, it CAN be done.

Ask your questions at script level, how marketable is this? Magnolia Pictures, who always have a very eclectic slate covering all genres, spoke about their hunt for not only strong storytelling but “unique voices”.


Leading on from script and what we said about subsets and niche audiences, (obviously all of these elements are intrinsically linked) genre content, such as horror, can be more distinguishable/ original. Maybe ask yourself, can this drama be flipped into a genre? But even within that, what elements are going to be unique.

Gunpowder & Sky regularly seek genre content. “We’re typically looking for content that’s younger skewing—young, loud, irreverent, and culturally relevant. We look to acquire specific genres—horror and thriller/sci-fi/comedy/rom com/music oriented films. We are open to other films if there’s an interesting and unique vision.” Interestingly, they also said that they really like working with first and second time filmmakers, supporting them and building those relationships.”

Release plan:

Michael Repsch (Dark Star Pictures) stressed the importance of a release plan. This is one of the main reasons for getting a company on board early can help. Michael also suggested that government funding/ sales agents help you not mess up your release, and this is a common downfall amongst those who choose to self-distribute.

Managing expectations:

Managing expectations is something else we talk about regularly at Lift-Off. It may sound negative, but it really needn’t.

Ryan Bury from Motion Picture Exchange said that “understanding the landscape and value of your film” is crucial.

When talking along the same lines, Timothy O’Brien spoke about the number of people who pitch to him without a plan beyond the major film festivals. As harsh as it may sound, he said this is absolutely not a plan! Don’t come across naive, understand the landscape and have realistic goals when approaching industry professionals.

Addiotionally, it’s important to understand that there is “a difference between what audiences are watching and what buyers are buying” (Jean-Francois Cavelier). You have to pass through these finite number of buyers first, otherwise nobody will watch your film.


To echo what we heard at Cannes, and again here at TIFF, there are no “set rules” for a filmmaker to follow to guarantee success. Research at every stage is absolutely crucial. Research your audience. Research your marketplace. Research which sales/distribution companies you approach (to avoid wasting your and their time).

In meetings, panel discussions (or even in the bars!) the Digital Marketplace dominated conversation. It’s crystal clear that this is where everybody’s attention is, and if it’s not on your radar, it should be! Whilst people are going to the cinema less and less, statistics show people are actually consuming more content than ever. The digital marketplace presents potentially huge opportunities for independent filmmakers to capitalise on.

Finally, we’ve all heard the bad tales. Don’t just be thrilled you’ve been offered a deal. Take care to get someone to read your contract before signing all rights away/understanding the offer in place.

If you are unsure of your next steps, engage with Lift-Off for a career road-mapping session, and we will help strategise your way forward together.