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21 August 2019
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The rise of digital and simultaneous release: HDNet

HDNet Films is a New York production company that finances and produces narrative and documentary features shot on high-definition video. Laird Adamson of HDNet Films was a guest advisor at the 2006 IndiVision Marketing Workshop in Melbourne last month, and he spoke to the AFC's Acting Manager Marketing Frances Leadbeter about digital films and knowing your market.

Can you describe your background and current role at HDNet?
My background is a bit of a hybrid of working in international sales and producing. I started working at Miramax in the International Department and then worked at Killer Films (with Christine Vachon). Following that I produced at Archer Entertainment for a couple of years, overseeing development and packaging for projects. Throughout both Killer and Archer I kept working with the international aspect of things. That's much more where my interests lie than Hollywood. So now I'm at HDNet and helping them start their international sales division. HDNet is part of the Wagner/Cuban Companies, which include 29/29 Entertainment (they made Good Night and Good Luck) and the Landmark Theatre cinema chain, which, I would say, is the nicest arthouse chain in the US.

How many cinemas do they own?
I'm not sure how many cinemas houses, but I believe it's somewhere upwards of 300 screens. Wagner/Cuban also owns Magnolia Pictures for distribution and two high def television networks, HDNet TV and HDNet Movies. Our company, HDNet Films, was founded about three years ago. First of all they wanted to maintain a commitment to independent filmmakers. However, with this division they have continued to push the boundaries of the film industry on a number of fronts - shooting all of the films on HD for one, as well as pushing the boundaries regarding traditional assumptions about release patterns.

So you're talking about the vertical release strategy that Cuban/Wagner have become known for - can you elaborate on this?
I'm talking about the simultaneous release. The films that we produce are released by Magnolia in the States. There's also Magnolia Home Entertainment that releases on DVD. And the high def movie channel, HDNet Movies. All release the films simultaneously in the US. Steven Soderbergh's film Bubble was released like this, i.e. in theatres, television, DVD all on the same day across the States. And it doesn't please a lot of the studios and other exhibitors. But we've had success with it so far. My division is the newest, selling the HD titles internationally.

So with regards to the sales division that you have, at present you only sell films that Wagner/Cuban companies have produced?
Yes. We just started in April. So we're still putting in infrastructure and are still in our infancy. However, we have started to discuss taking on additional films shot in HD.

How are digital films selling internationally?
They are selling really well. The format has not been an issue. You know, I think people see the film or even the promo reel that we have and they are impressed. They want the films. I don't know if it's an attribute of the medium or the producers but they all look fantastic. They're really, really gorgeous. Beyond that, it's just a question of storytelling.

And is that the same for festivals?
It depends on the screening capabilities of the festival. Obviously, if your film gets into Cannes you're going to spend the money to blow it up. However, most of them are fine with screening digitally. So we're screening at most festivals on Digibeta and HD, preferably HD, but it depends on what they can project.

Prior to joining HDNet, you were working as a producer, dealing with sales agents and trying to get them interested in your projects. Can you talk about how you did this? Do you have any advice for producers out there wanting to attach a sales agent?
I think it changes a lot - there is no one way. This part of the industry changes very frequently. And not only does it go in cycles along with the business, but it depends on the project and how badly a sales company wants it, and what the company can afford. You know, when I was producing I didn't look to sales agents for minimum guarantees. The market in the US was/is very different in the sense that we're not financed by subsidies and film funds to the same extent as other countries such as Australia, and I relied almost entirely on private equity. So rather than look for financial input from a sales agent, what I wanted to do was to be on the sales agent's radar and be able to use them as a kind of barometer in terms of how people internationally are going to respond to the project. And that becomes a really good tool to bring to private investors.

But you would show them the script?
Sure. Not the script notes, but there were three or four key sales agents that I worked with, and have talked to quite a bit, so I would show them the scripts and talk about what we were working on. I could just tell from that how interested they were. It gives you a pretty big sense of what the international market is going to be for the film.

So then you then took that feedback back to your potential investors?
I took the good feedback back. If it's bad feedback then you've just got to regroup and figure out a different road. And there always is one. But yeah, I used it more as a sales estimates tool to help make the private investors feel more comfortable. It gives them a sense that the film is actually going to be released. I could show them that there was real interest because there are a hell of a lot of films made and a hell of a lot of films never released. And if you can show them as they're getting involved, and before they write a cheque, that there is real legitimate interest from sales agents then it puts you in a better position. It's a little bit more reassuring.

So on a personal note, why do you think you're better suited to sales?
It's less about sales and more about connecting with other people from all different cultures on projects. The international side of it I think is really unique because it's fun to sit in a room in Cannes and get perspectives from Brazil and Czechoslovakia and Japan on the same project. You all live in different corners of the globe but get together every few months at markets and festivals, and so you form pretty unique friendships, which makes the business side easier and more fun.

For more information about HDNet Films visit their website.

IndiVision Project Lab Director Megan Simpson Huberman with HDNet Films' Laird Adamson at the 06 IndiVision Marketing Workshop.

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