Neon’s Elissa Federoff, Paramount’s Sejin Croninger, Among Keynotes at Locarno’s StepIN Think Tank

The Locarno Film Festival’s StepIN think tank on the state of the indie film industry is set to take the pulse of the theatrical landscape, the flow of production, how film festivals and markets are faring and where things stand on gender equality and social impact.

After a taking a break last year from its strictly business focus to zero in mainly on mental health and envisioning a more humane work environment, the Swiss fest’s unique initiative is back to delving into the industry’s most pressing operational issues and what lies ahead.

“Now that the worst moments of the global pandemic seem behind us — and after a Cannes Film Festival in full gear — the film industry is questioning its future,” said StepIN project manager Marcello Paolillo, who is an Italian producer.

As Paolillo puts it in his introduction, the basic overarching theme at StepIN is “Putting The Pieces Together in a Post-Pandemic Puzzle.”

Now in its tenth year, StepIN is an interdisciplinary and international think tank, where some fifty European and international invited industry players — distributors, exhibitors, producers, sales agents, film institutions, financiers, streaming platforms, broadcasters, and film festival and markets reps — participate in closed working sessions to exchange thoughts on practices and business models and propose new ideas and strategies.

The day-long event on Aug. 4, will kick off with an “out-of-the-box” introduction by marketing guru Guido Lara, head of Lexia Insights and Solutions, an agency that works with the likes of Netflix, Discovery and Disney, on consumer trends inside and outside the film industry.

The opening keynote speakers are Elissa Federoff, president of theatrical distribution for Neon, which recently acquired Ruben Östlund’s buzzy Cannes Palm d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness”; veteran acquisitions and production exec Sejin Croninger, who is executive VP of worldwide acquisitions at Paramount Pictures; and Danielle Turkov Wilson, founder and CEO of Think-Film Impact Production, a Brussels-based outfit that works on the cusp between film production and social change which shepherded and mounted campaigns for award-winning titles such as “The Cave” by Feras Fayyad and Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters.”

The keynote conversations, which help shape subsequent StepIN discussions, will be followed by closed door round-tables and a wrap-up session.

Speaking to Variety ahead of the event Federoff, who has been instrumental to Neon grossing more than $180 million over the past five years at the U.S. box office with premium art films such as Bong Joon Ho’s multiple Oscar winner “Parasite,” underlined the enduring value of theatrical in a film’s life cycle despite the streaming boom.

“Even if a movie isn’t ‘staggeringly successful’ during its theatrical run,’ I truly believe that theatrical sets it up for a successful ancillary life,” she said.

Federoff also pointed out the positive interplay between theatrical and streaming that at Neon results from their multi-year output deal with Hulu. 

Hulu is a great partner in that they really understand the merit of theatrical; it [theatrical] only makes it more ideal for them, once they get it on their platform,” she said.

Croninger, who leads the worldwide acquisitions group at Paramount, including its Paramount Players label and also its Paramount+ streamer, pointed out that historically the U.S. studios have been “kind of limited in terms of the bar or the needle that you want to thread.”

“It’s always been so narrow and precise,” she said.

“But these days for a studio and streamers — and anyone in the content and distribution business — the rate of change is so much more rapid,” Croninger noted.

“The days of really planning — long-range planning — which is historically based on projections are gone, Croninger went on to point out, adding: “I think the rate of change and this notion of how consumer habits are changing, that is the thing, that no one — if they are being honest — can predict.” 

One trend that is becoming clear in the “post-pandemic” world, says Wilson, is that “Millennials and Gen Z have a spending power of over $360 billion in disposable income and make up the largest audience for VOD content.” They also have a desire for “authenticity and responsible filmmaking,” the Think-Film chief added.

Wilson also noted the “impact value in diversity,” citing the fact that, by her count, “eight of the top ten theatrically released films in 2021 featured casts that were greater than 30% minority.”

Expected attendees at StepIN include Carlo Dusi, head of London-based Endor Productions; MUBI director of marketing Irene Musumeci; Eurimages fund chief Susan Newman-Baudais; Rotterdam Film Festival chief Vanja Kaludjercic; Oscilloscope president Dan Berger; Jiyong Kim, who is president of South Korea’s AK Entertainment; and Alexis Hofmann, head of acquisitions at France’s Bac Films.