Surviving The Temporary Death of Cinema

By Kai Nicol-Schwarz | 14th October 2020

Distributing an independent film 101: Segment your audience, book the film into festivals, hit the cinemas and release on a non-theatrical license. For those not in the know (like myself), and non-theatrical license allows community groups, universities and schools to arrange screenings of a film.

It’s a tried and tested model and up until March, it worked. Then Covid hit, and coming together with a group of people in a physical space was no longer the hot ticket it once was. For some, it felt like the death knell of an industry – but for one brave mind, it was a challenge to tackle head-on.

Sarah Mosses is sitting at her improvised home office desk. Behind her, a wall of DVDs provide the backdrop for our Zoom call. Pretty apt surroundings for the Founder and CEO of movie distribution firm and Huckletree West members, Together Films. At the beginning of lockdown, she tells me, all of their revenue was based on the physical – and it all dried up overnight.

The End For Cinema?

When lockdown fell across the UK, Together Films had just launched the award-winning climate change documentary, 2040. It’s an optimistic, inspiring film that looks at the effects of climate change over the next 20 years, and the technologies that exist today that can reverse the damage. They’d just signed US rights to the film a week before lockdown, and were building up to release it in 400 events across the UK. In the US they had a New York opening, a Los Angeles opening, and various tours booked in. They were all cancelled. Invoices had to be refunded and expected payments wiped out. This was the situation for all independent filmmakers, production companies and distributors. It was a very different situation for Hollywood, who have the money and publicity to weather the storm. The independent sector had to change, and quickly.

“The entire industry had to move to a virtual theatrical mode,” Sarah tells me. It had to find a way to screen films for people online, and continue to find some income – in the indefinite absence of its greatest asset, a physical coming together of people. Together Films began to explore the ways to release a film entirely virtually, all while the fear of the impending collapse of the company was front of mind. “We were doing these trials with online platforms and freaking the fuck out because we didn’t know if we’d have a business in a month.”

Going Digital

Out of this, Sarah saw an opportunity to support the sector as a whole. She partnered up with film distribution agency Picture Motion, and launched their Digital Perspectives webinar. It was all about exploring online platforms that allowed you to set up virtual screening rooms. The webinar wasn’t revenue generating, it was a project based around the idea of coming together as an industry, to save an industry. 

Each week Sarah would meet a new platform to talk about their product. Initially, Sarah says, the idea was just to invite a bunch of friends in film and help each other through a tough spot. Cut to over 1000 senior industry stakeholders turning up to the first session, with big hitters from the Baftas, Sundance, and the BFI in attendance. Everyone wanted to know how to pivot to digital, and Together Films were providing the educational resource to do it. 

“Digital Perspectives became my life for 6 months. We’ve been building up this army of people who just want to learn.” But there was no big plan, Sarah tells me, and it was strange to go from being a company that worked behind the scenes, to one that was at the vanguard of change. 

All of this was happening while Together Films were pivoting their own operation around movie releases. After Covid forced their hand to find an online solution to releasing 2040, they had planned a virtual theatrical release in early June. This ended up being around a week after George Floyd was murdered. 

“There was a sector-wide understanding that it would not be appropriate to market films during that period. You know that if you talk about anything else in that moment, it’s going to detract from the bigger picture.” So, Together Films pushed the release date back, and made sure their programming at that time was reflective of the pivotal moment in global politics. 

Coded Bias: The Algorithms That Control Our Lives

In June, Together Films managed the marketing & partnerships for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival – which they also pivoted to a digital edition. This is where they first worked on the documentary Coded Bias, which addresses the in-built prejudice in the algorithms that run technology. Sarah asks me to hang on a minute while she searches for a quote from director Shalini Kantayya, which she says describes the issue perfectly. “Automated decision making has the unprecedented power to disseminate bias at scale.” It’s a good line. 

The film came at a time where bias in the system has come into popular focus, and it struck a chord. The A-Level scandal, Sarah tells me, was the first time in this country that we became aware of this unintended prejudice on a large scale. Coded Bias is trying to open that conversation, in the same way Diversity VC has with their diversity standard for investors, Sarah says.

Together Films are now looking at Coded Bias’ non-theatrical release, and they want to take the issue directly to the people who have the power to affect change. We’re talking about getting technology companies and corporates screening the film. “I’d love the film to be part of a tech company’s onboarding process, so that before any code is written, unintended bias is something that is front of mind.”

What Next?

Sarah excels at creative problem solving – and as a skill, it’s been vital to surviving the sudden blow of Covid-19. It’s taken Together Films from the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of March, to a position where the team is growing and prospering in September. 

At the beginning of 2020, the team was 7 strong. It’s now increased to 12, they’ve just hired their first US based employee, and Sarah is gunning for 15 by the end of the year. They’re keeping the education play going too, and have just launched a new series of webinars, Digital Power

The show goes on for Sarah and the Together Films team, come rain or shine. Whatever Covid has thrown at them, they’ve not just found a way to survive, they’ve thrived.