IOANNA STAIS, HEAD OF SALES AND ACQUISITIONS – HERETIC OUTREACH
Ioanna joined forces with Greek production company Heretic in 2014 to launch the international sales department of the company Heretic Outreach, first international sales agency to be based in Southeastern Europe.
As manager of Heretic Outreach, she oversees acquisitions and all rights sales worldwide.
Features Ioanna has worked on include BAFTA and Independent Spirit Awards nominee, RETABLO by Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio, Isabella Eklöf’s HOLIDAY, and Muayad Alayan’s THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM.
Previous employers include WIDE MANAGEMENT and FESTIVAL DE CANNES.
Why Inside Pictures (IP)?
I heard about IP from producer Giorgos Karnavas, one of the co-owners of Heretic. He said it was a game changer. Compared to all the programmes he’d ever attended, he said: “If there’s one programme to do, do IP – trust me.”
How have you found doing IP online during the pandemic?
By the time we got accepted, IP needed to go online as a result of the pandemic. I felt that being together, and learning together about the film industry during COVID would be a big plus of IP 2020.
I’ve been impressed by how much we can actually bond via a Zoom call.
In the six years since you launched Heretic Outreach, what changes have you witnessed in relation to your role and work?
Heretic Outreach focus on films by new and emerging directorial talent from the world of independent/arthouse cinema. Over the six years, it’s become harder to sell this type of film. What a distributor pays now is definitely less that one or even two years ago. I feel the gap is becoming bigger between films with in built commercial potential (such as name directorial talent or star cast) and those that do not.
Many argue that some platforms and existing distribution models will disappear soon. I don’t believe that. You still need physical film festivals or theatrical releases – to create a buzz, and build up the reputation of your film. You can’t do that with just a VOD platform – and then to contradict myself, the future, in many ways, is in the hands of the platforms. I don’t think you can be too absolute either way.
How do you evaluate and acquire new film projects?
Heretic tries to acquire six films per year. We’re driven to finding new talent and sticking with talent we’ve already worked with. We select our films as a team; we all watch and then debate. It’s one of my favourite processes as the richness of the points of view can make one completely change their mind on a film by the end of the discussion.
Next is strategy and understanding the commercial potential of all six films. We try to be balanced and keep in mind the market needs. We never think of a film just as a film, but as part of a whole line-up for the year. We want to make sure that our films do not compete with one another and we’re definitely not afraid of a hard sell if we love and believe in a film.
It’s important to be on the same page as the people you’re working with: the producers and directors alike. If you’re hoping for a long term relationship, then it’s really important to work hand in hand, and be transparent about how well you expect a film to perform.
When you’re watching many films to consider for acquisition, can you still just enjoy a film as a piece of entertainment?
I have filters I’ve nurtured through experience but in most cases I completely forget what my job is. Hopefully that’s the case because it all starts from a passion for cinema.
How has 2020’s film festival calendar write off affected acquisitions?
We acquired fewer films for 2020 – found ourselves with a line-up of four films instead of six – and focused on projects for 2021 or still at script stage – for future acquisitions. Depending on the sales company, the strategy is surely different but the impact was definite in terms of focus on the type and range of projects as well as amounts spent on acquisitions.
The market is fragile, and no one can be sure what it’s going to look like in 2021. As an experienced sales agent, you carry your sales estimates in your head, but because of COVID, you can’t be sure how valid they’ll be a few months from now.
There’s a very important distinction between the Cannes Film Festival and the online market version that took place in June 2020, accompanied by a selection of Cannes labelled films. When we premiere films at that type of festival, the momentum is crucial; and the buzz you can create and the sales you achieve are the end of a planned process/strategy. The physical festival is still crucial, and so is the press and word of mouth that comes with it. So, even though a Cannes market took place, it did not replace the lack of the festival part – that’s very important to understand.
What’s been the greatest impact on Heretic Outreach from COVID?
In addition to acquiring fewer finished films this year, COVID is forcing everyone, including us, to find new ways to reach our audiences. Weirdly enough, COVID might end up establishing a new space in the exhibition market – online theatrical (see below).
What changes do you foresee in the medium/long term as a result of COVID?
I think COVID is definitely speeding up a process of change that had already begun. The digitalization of cinema distribution was already there, but now is happening faster. Very often, throwing films onto VOD platforms does nothing more than make them available. In terms of building up an auteur, or building up a successful film release, the physical film festival circuit and theatrical exhibition, by their absence, have shown that they’re still important. It’s why I don’t believe existing distribution methods will die – change, yes. For instance, COVID will probably affect windowing and holdback practices worldwide in the release of a film.
Of course, when things eventually return to something resembling normal, most companies will have reshuffled their business priorities and some will have had to re-invent themselves.
What’s the most innovative change you’ve seen in the film industry in response to COVID?
Online theatrical created space for some of our films that might have been a bit too risky for a distributor, in pre-COVID times, to get in the physical theatres. Now, they are willing to experiment due to the lower risk of online theatrical. It is not to be confused with normal VOD. Its online theatrical, attached to specific exhibitors. It is a hint to what the future might look like; going to the theatre to watch film, but if you can’t, if you don’t have time, if you’re too afraid/vulnerable of COVID, you can still connect on your computer, and watch the film. It’s still considered theatrical and the exhibitor will still take a share of that whether you’re there in person, or online. This might actually bring one step further the discussion on day and date releases which is still so very controversial in many territories.
It’s not about the old versus new ways. It’s not theatres versus Netflix – the big battle! It’s not that at all. There are so many grey zones to the future of film distribution/exhibition.
Tell us about Greece’s open air cinemas.
Every year, pre-COVID, all the indoor theatres (except those in malls) close, and all the open-air cinemas open. It’s a very strong tradition among Greek people; even if they don’t go to the cinema all year long. It’s a very sociable activity in Greece. You take your beer; sit outside – people do it in the same way they could go out for a drink. It’s something that has been maintainable during COVID and got quite good results. We were lucky in that sense.
What’s been your lockdown film/tv discovery?
The films of Korean director, Na Hong-Jin – a really exciting discovery for me. I also went deeper into the filmography of two French auteurs – Claude Sautet and Claude Lelouch (a notable highlight was ROBERT ET ROBERT, 1978).