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Way back when Elissa Federoff first agreed to deliver the annual industry keynote at the 2020 Film Independent Forum, the NEON Distribution President made sure to warn our Film Independent Education team that, “should things develop with coronavirus I might not be able to attend”—the date of that cautionary email? March 2. Cut to: nearly five months later. With the world more or less adjusted to its much-discussed “new normal,” Federoff was finally, on July 31, given the opportunity to make good on her commitment, albeit from the confines of a CD-insert-sized Zoom window at home in New York rather than onstage behind a real-world #FiForum20 dais in sunny Playa Vista, CA.
Federoff’s industry keynote was the first LIVE event of this reimagined Forum’s weeklong slate of virtual panels, pitch sessions, case studies, workshops and networking events, including a live interactive audience Q&A. The Forum continues through Friday, August 7 with new content dropping each day available both live and On Demand. Passes remain available throughout, so be sure to check out our full Forum schedule for more information.
“The last five months had me thinking a lot about who I am, what I do,” began the young film exec, whose surreal 2020 began with the surprise awards season triumph of NEON’s Parasite, which one four Oscars including Best Picture, plus one Film Independent Spirit Award. “I can’t help but acknowledge how much things have changed since March. It’s become such a radically different place, in just a few months time,” she said—citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests sparked in response to ongoing police violence.
“Things have shifted globally, economically, politically, culturally; this has gotten me thinking a lot about what’s happening to human lives, to our loved ones and our industry, which is so beloved to all of us,” she said. “Film brings us together, it gives us meaning, and in many ways it can create change. Right now, when the world is upside down, these stories can bring us salvation, joy, and on some days just an escape from all the things we want to leave behind, for a short time.”
But despite her lifelong passion for cinema—stoked in large part by childhood favorite Dirty Dancing, she said—Federoff’s career trajectory was, for a long time, anything but crystal clear.
Her first “industry” job ended ignominiously in college, when she was fired from Blockbuster after being late to her restocking shift one too many times. After college (Wisconsin-Madison, go Badgers!) she pursued what she called a “more pragmatic” career path, getting a real estate license and moving to New York and landing at a company selling and managing “these absurdly nice lofts in SoHo”—a gig she acknowledges might have been someone else’s dream job, but not hers (the boys’ club atmosphere at said firm didn’t help, nor the fact that her boss was the spitting image of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman.)
After much soul-searching and at least one well-worn copy of the self-help classic What Color is Your Parachute?, Federoff firmly (and finally) set her sights on the film business, eventually landing her first indie film job at Think Film, which led to further opportunities in theatrical sales at Lionsgate, The Weinstein Company and—her favorite—RADiUS.
“RADiUS was a big part of that first wave of change for me in distributing really cool films in interesting and new ways,” she said, “experimenting with windows and eventizing these genre films.” She cited the release of the Rebecca Green-produced 2014 indie horror hit It Follows as a key moment in the evolution of distribution models, citing what she and her colleagues dubbed “The Audible.”
“It started with a shortened window,” she explained. “And the idea was, if we sold enough tickets in the first two weeks in major markets, then we’d forget the VOD window and go wide with the theatrical release. And sure enough, in these first couple of weeks, we saw that we had a hit on our hands.”
RADiUS eventually shut down, but when founder Tom Quinn started putting together a new venture, Federoff was one of the first people to hop on board, along with several other RADiUS-TWC alums.
Federoff’s tenure at the overachieving upstart NEON has led to even greater innovation—with plenty of box office and awards hardware to back it up. Federoff describes NEON as “a culture of collaboration,” praising her colleagues as an inclusive collection of deep-thinkers and progressives—though events of recent months have made clear just how much work there is left to do around issues of social justice, inclusion and representation, in film and beyond. In the meantime, Federoff and her female-led distribution department are doing much to reverse decades of gender discrimination in the theatrical sales space.
So! What is the future of independent film distribution in the difficult year (or years) ahead? The ongoing resurgence of drive-in theaters, for one—a trend Federoff predicted in early March—as well as continued partnerships with art houses and other independent exhibitors for their virtual cinemas.
Ane who knows what else? Strangely, in a time when options are limited, the possibilities seem, somehow, endless…
The 2020 Film Independent Forum was supported by Premier Sponsor SAGindie, and University Partner Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television. Film Independent promotes unique independent voices by helping filmmakers create and advance new work.
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