AFM 2023 Chaotic, But Productive, Indie Film Distributors Say

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The annual American Film Market (AFM) ended its six-day run Nov. 5 at its new home, the Le Méridien Delfina Santa Monica, and the verdict among independent film distributors who attended the event was that it was equal parts chaotic and productive.

Chaotic, because the venue change necessitated splitting the conference program from the hotel suites where most of the business gets done. Sessions were held at the Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites, nearly a mile away. Parking information was vague, and the lines for elevators were as long as ever. Compounding the confusion was that the host hotel was being picketed by striking hotel workers belonging to Unite Here Local 11, who crowded the sidewalk while loudly chanting, banging drums and tooting horns. Their demands include higher wages and an end to bringing in replacement workers from homeless shelters on Skid Row.

And yet inside the film market, it was very much business as usual. “AFM was productive – it was great to have face time with so many sales agents, buyers and producers,” said Andreas Olavarria, president and CEO of Level 33 Entertainment. “As I’m sure many have remarked, there were challenges with the venue: it was difficult navigating the new location, elevators, maze-like halls and stairwells; not to mention the noise of striking hotel workers which seemed to affect mostly the priciest suites facing the ocean.”

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His takeaway of the current state of independent film distribution: “The SVOD business is more difficult and confusing than ever with so much consolidation, change of personnel and lack of clarity about who is actually buying indie films. AVOD is a bright spot, with many platforms doing meaningful business. Theatrical presents some opportunities but seems to be mostly about branding films ahead of VOD….”

Striking workers outside the Le Meridien Delfina in Santa Monica, Calif., during AFM 2023 (Media Play News staff photo).

Among several acquisitions, Level 33 nabbed North American rights to Cottontail, a drama from British director Patrick Dickinson that stars Lily Franky and Ciaran Hinds. The film had its world premiere late last month at the Rome Film Festival, where it picked up a prize for Best First Feature.

Mitch Mallon, the founder and CEO of Stadium Media, said his company “did not acquire anything in particular, but we did create a few new relationships with newer/startup production companies.  We also reconnected with companies that we have been in contact with for the past few years and a few of those look like they will be bringing some of their programs to Stadium Media in 2024.”

Mallon agrees that the show was productive. “We connected for the first time with local film commissions in our state, Arizona, which means Stadium Media will now be in the conversation for film makers as a possible asset for their production’s distribution.”

As for buzz, Mallon said “the one that surprised me is that I did not hear much discussion around the show floor  in the way of FAST channels, whereas the previous week while attending Sportel Monaco, the talk was all about FAST.”

Ed Seaman, CEO of MVD Entertainment Group, a family-run business that has been releasing music and film to home viewers since 1986, also gave the show high marks.

“We are considering a number of different product lines for acquisition but we don’t kiss and tell, not until the ink is dry,” he said. “Most importantly, anytime we can get together with our trade partners, have some quality time to explore opportunities and break bread, great things happen. And AFM this year did not disappoint.” 

Bill Sondheim of Greenfield Media LLC, a content consulting company, said he sees AFM as “as opportunity to buy and sell content. I was here to sell a few movies and was able to get several offers that I am now negotiating to complete the terms.”

Overall, he said, “I found the show exceptionally productive, and I was pleasantly surprised by the ease in setting very busy back-to-back meetings away from the main event hotel with meaningful distributors and platform operators. This allowed me to have quiet and engaged meetings in a pleasant environment. In just three days, I had 27 meetings and three delicious dinners. One dinner helped me secure a host for a TV series, another allowed me to get a few collector boxed sets in motion, and a final dinner provided ideas for new MOD services for international territories.”

That said, Sondheim added, “I heard frustration from many foreign sales companies that the new host hotel was not accommodating. I also heard attendance was down in part due to the huge attendance at MIPCOM a few weeks ago.”

On the product side, he said, “The disc dialog I heard centered around MOD and collector sets. MOD will extend the ability to get revenue out of an increasingly small consumer base for slower moving titles. Collector sets cater to an audience that wants a physical item to display because they are passionate fans, and that consumer may start to resemble the older vinyl consumer that has driven a retro hipness despite newer technologies.”

Attendees also commented that they felt the panel discussions, at 90 minutes, were far too long. Said one observer, “I felt like sticking needles in my eyes.”

Independent Film Distributors Gear Up for AFM as Film Market Opens Today

Independent film distributors, whose target audience primarily watches movies at home, are gearing up for the annual American Film Market (AFM), which starts its six-day run today (Oct. 31) at Le Méridien Delfina Santa Monica (530 Pico Blvd.).

Andreas Olavarria, president and CEO of Level 33 Entertainment, said he’s “looking to meet with sales agents and discover some good feature films for our 2024 slate of theatrical and on-demand releases. We are open to content in all genres, but typically look for movies with a strong hook and known cast/elements. We also are selling several wonderful feature films from festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca at the market this year.

Olavarria said he’s attended AFM for more than a decade “and bought many films over the years. We acquired the movie Simmer from Sublimity Entertainment, and it went on to air on HBO and Max after a successful VOD and DVD release. Deadly Cuts is a film we acquired from Myriad Picture at AFM, and it is currently on Showtime and Paramount+. We were approached last year by the director of the award-winning film Waikiki, which will be released in select theaters in November and on demand beginning in December.”

Ed Seaman

Ed Seaman, CEO of MVD Entertainment Group, a family-run business that has been releasing music and film to home viewers since 1986, also will be at AFM 2023.

“It is a great opportunity to spend face-to-face time with clients and customers, to have some time to be cerebral and creative with our trade partners,” Seaman said. “We are not so much looking to buy films here but strengthen our relationships, and build new ones. So often we think we know what our trade partners do until we have some unstructured time, and we find there are new ways we can help each other.”

Another indie who will be at AFM this year is Richard Wolff, CEO of Breaking Glass Pictures, which licenses about 30 titles a year and produces 10 films annually for worldwide distribution. “Yes, we are attending from the beginning to the last day,” Wolff said. “We’re looking for films of all genres – we’re hoping to secure about a dozen pictures.”

Wolff, too, is a longtime regular at AFM, “beginning when the market was in February. We always made great deals, as this is the last market of the year. I’m curious to see how the new venue fares – and the condition of the elevators!”

Bill Sondheim will also be at AFM this year. A veteran home entertainment executive who once was president of PolyGram Video when the company was approaching the ranks of the majors, he now runs Greenfield Media LLC, a content consulting company that helps content creators find distribution and financing for their films before they are made, helps producers develop and package films, and represents films already made for licensing deals.

“I am going to AFM and looking forward to a busy few days,” Sondheim said. “I have several films at various stages of development that I will be pitching to distributors. I also represent some distribution companies, and I will meet with program suppliers that might benefit from added distribution capabilities. This show allows me to meet with dozens of content companies in a pleasant and convenient meeting area.”

Bill Sondheim

Sondheim said he’s gone to AFM “for many years and always found it productive. Last year I sold two films as a producer that started with dialogs at AFM. I also got a new representation deal due to meetings at last year’s AFM. Going to the show is a very productive time.

Mitch Mallon, the founder and CEO of Stadium Media, also is attending the show. “We attend to continually measure where the business is and possibly progressing to, as well as to meet and establish initial relationships with some of the newer suppliers from the United States and around the globe.”

Stadium Media is a global distribution company established in 2015 with a catalog of over 400 titles. Mallon and his team work directly with most digital and OTT platforms throughout North America “and the ever-expanding global digital landscape,” Mallon said.

“I have been attending AFM since our launch and have met, and developed relationships with, several suppliers that we still work with to this day in releasing digitally. AFM is where I began to formalize what Stadium Media might become.”

Absent from AFM this year is Michael Rosenberg of Film Movement. “We went last year, but decided to skip it this year,” he said. “We’re in regular contact with everyone and saw a bunch of sales agents in Venice, at TIFF, and in Karlovy Vary. Also, we have a lot of films in the pipeline already at this time.”

Another no-show is Dan Gurlitz, the founder of Soundview Media Partners, which specializes in independent films as a sales agent, represents films for non-theatrical exhibition licensing, and publishes The Sound View: Independent Film Digest, a monthly publication focused on the release of unique films, both classic and contemporary.

AFM, he said, “is not a show that caters to the kind of films Soundview Media Partners traditionally specializes in. More importantly, business has been extraordinarily strong. Leads and new clients come in mostly via word of mouth, so there’s little need to attend a show like this at this time.”

AFM 2023 has lined up 245 exhibitors, according to organizers. Film screenings will be held at theaters throughout Los Angeles, while the AFM’s conference series will take place at The Hilton Santa Monica Hotel (1707 4th St).   

The exhibitor list features independent film and TV production, sales and distribution companies as well as national pavilions from China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Thailand and the United Kingdom. International trade organizations, film commissions and production service companies also have a significant presence as part of this year’s enhanced LocationEXPO exhibition, according to organizers. 

Registrants include buyers from more than 65 countries, according to organizers.  

Pat Boone Honored With Lifetime Achievement Award at AFM 2022

Legendary singer, actor and author Pat Boone was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award Nov. 3, presented at the American Film Market (AFM) by Media Play News.

In a career that spans seven decades, Boone, 88, has not only been a top-selling recording artist — in the late 1950s, he had more chart hits than anyone except Elvis Presley, according to Billboard — but also has appeared in more than a dozen movies, including the 1959 science-fiction hit Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 1962 musical State Fair and 1970’s The Cross and the Switchblade.

Boone was at AFM to promote his latest film, The Mulligan, produced by Rick Eldridge and one of two ReelWorks Studios films acquired by the Bridgestone Multimedia Group. The film was released domestically by Fathom and played on 800 screens. Cinedigm has domestic home video rights, while Bridgestone has worldwide home video rights, excluding North America. Both deals were brokered by Bill Sondheim of Greenfield Media.

Looking Back: 1997 — The Dawn of the DVD Era

Twenty-five years ago, the home entertainment industry was at a turning point. Videocassette rentals, the backbone of the business since it was launched in 1977, were in a slump as the novelty of renting movies wore off. Hoping to revive the business, a consortium of studio executives led by then-Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb developed a new business strategy that involved putting movies on a five-inch disc, which consumers would purchase rather than rent. The soon-to-be-launched DVD was the talk of CES 1997 in January, and dominated the show floor in July at the annual Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) convention. Not all studios were onboard, and few realized at the time just how enormously successful the DVD would be — and how it would ignite a digital revolution in entertainment that has given us streaming, Netflix and even the ability to watch movies on our phones.

Rapper DMX, Eric Roberts Star in Two Films Released to Home Audiences by The Asylum, Sondheim’s Greenfield Media

Sharknado producer The Asylum is releasing two films to home audiences in partnership with Greenfield Media, the company owned by industry veteran Bill Sondheim, whose credits include top leadership posts at PolyGram Video, USA Video and Cinedigm.

The first release, available Sept. 1, is the street-race thriller Fast & Fierce: Death Race, starring hip hop superstar DMX. The jet-fighter action film Wingmen Under Siege, with Eric Roberts, follows on Nov. 3.

Bill Sondheim

Asylum will handle digital distribution; Sondheim’s companies will distribute the titles on disc through Distribution Solutions. Fast & Fierce will only be available on DVD, while Wingmen will be released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

“A wide DVD release is never an easy decision these days,” said Asylum partner David Rimawi. “But when Bill and the Sony alum team at Distribution Solutions were excited about the titles, we knew we had a couple of hits on our hands.”

Sondheim added, “I have had the pleasure of working with The Asylum team for many years and their product always delivers powerful stories with great casts, which results in terrific sales. I am thrilled to bring these films to the mainstream market with the assistance of Distribution Solutions.”

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Fast & Fierce: Death Race follows Jack Tyson (DMX), who is near victory in an illegal street race from Mexico to California when a desperate woman jumps into his car. She asks him to help her escape from her violent boyfriend, the same gangster who organized the race.

Wingman Under Siege revolves around cadets on a secluded U.S. Air Force training base who must protect a gene-editing bioweapon from the Russian operatives who are desperate to seize the deadly viral agent at any cost.  Roberts stars as the masterly base colonel.

Bill Sondheim Exits Cinedigm After Five Years as President of Distributor’s Entertainment Group

Bill Sondheim has left independent content distributor Cinedigm Corp. after more than five years as president, industry sources told Media Play News.

Sondheim was not available for comment, but a Cinedigm publicist confirmed his departure and noted that he will not be replaced.

Sondheim for years has been a respected home entertainment executive, known for taking independent content and exploiting it across multiple distribution channels. He has long advocated that digital is the future but physical remains viable.

Sondheim had his duties expanded last November when he was named president of worldwide distribution, charged with leading the company’s China/North America pipeline in addition to managing distribution in the rest of the world. He remained president of the Cinedigm Entertainment Group, overseeing all content rights management across all distribution channels that Cinedigm serves, including managing all sales of physical and digital goods to retail partners and all transactional and subscription digital outlets.

Cinedigm maintains a library of 50,000 films and TV episodes, and direct relationships with over 60,000 physical stores and digital retailers, including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon. The company also provides feature films and series to Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as cable and satellite providers Comcast, Dish Network and DirecTV.

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Since Chinese investment firm Bison Capital completed a majority investment in Cinedigm in late 2017, Cinedigm has focused its efforts on creating a two-way flow of content between North America and China and has established deep relationships with leading Chinese content providers, streaming services, and government agencies, all under Sondheim’s guidance. Cinedigm recently announced the planned launch of a new OTT streaming service in North America called Bambu, bringing Chinese content to young, trend-setting Americans.

Before joining Cinedigm in October 2013, Sondheim was president of entertainment and worldwide distribution for Gaiam, later Gaiam Vivendi, which was ultimately sold to Cinedigm. From 2005 to 2007, he oversaw the development of Sony Music Entertainment’s dual disc technology initiative.

Before Sony, Sondheim was president of GT Brands LLC and, before that, president of Polygram Filmed Entertainment’s video distribution entity when it appeared PolyGram was on the cusp of becoming the seventh major, through hit theatrical movies like What Dreams May Come, with Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr., and The Game, with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. Those plans were dashed when the company was sold to Seagram Company Ltd. in 1998. Two years later, PolyGram Films was folded.

Sondheim has managed properties associated with the NFL, NBA, MLB, Reebok, Scholastic, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and fitness personalities including Jillian Michaels, Richard Simmons, and Kathy Smith.

Sondheim’s future plans remain unclear, but sources say he plans to remain in the business with a new venture.

Source say Bill Perrault, SVP of marketing for Cinedigm Entertainment Group, also has left.

In a news release issued shortly after Media Play News’ story about Sondheim’s departure, Cinedigm said the executive’s exit was one of several “leadership changes within the company’s Content Entertainment Group to reflect the company’s evolving focus on digital streaming and content aggregation following its recent announcement to acquire Future Today Inc., a leading OTT streaming video platform.”

The release noted that Sondheim will continue to provide the company with consulting services. No new president will be named; instead, the Content Entertainment Group will be led by EVP Yolanda Macías and SVP Dan Coyle.

“These moves continue the company’s efforts to streamline corporate structure and enhance management effectiveness and synergy,” Cinedigm said in the release.

Macías, a 25-year industry vet, is responsible for acquiring global content rights and oversees digital distribution across all world-wide platforms. Like Sondheim, she began her tenure at Cinedigm after the Gaiam Vivendi acquisition in 2013. Previously, Macías held executive positions at DIRECTV, Technicolor and the Walt Disney Company. She was also honored as one of the Top 50 Women in Business by the Los Angeles Business Journal and as one of Media Play News‘ 2018 Digital Drivers.

Coyle, too, joined Cinedigm after the company’s acquisition of Gaiam Vivendi in 2013. As SVP of sales, Coyle is responsible for strategic planning and sales of physical media for the company’s catalog of independent film and television titles. Coyle previously held the same position at Gaiam since 2005. Prior to Gaiam, he was VP of retail operations aat Goodtimes Entertainment, which he joined in 1991. There, he helped launch the first VMI program in the video industry.

Cinedigm Inks Content License Deal with China Lion

Cinedigm Jan. 23 announced it has entered into a non-exclusive content licensing agreement with China Lion to release more than 40 Chinese-language movies on the home entertainment distributor’s pending streaming channel, Bambu.

“This deal delivers dozens of very strong and well-known films, and perfectly complements the [China International TVCorporation]deal we recently announced, which was more TV episodic content,” Bill Sondheim, president of Cinedigm Entertainment Group and worldwide distribution, said in a statement. “We are particularly pleased that the titles are all subtitled, allowing for the best representation of the original film versions and adds to the authentic high-profile content foundation for Bambu.”

Bambu’s primary focus is Gen Z demo (ages 16-24), and Millennial viewers (ages 25-35). Together, those viewers represent more than 27% of the U.S. population.

“When we started China Lion back in 2010, Cinedigm was our first strategic home entertainment partner,” said China Lion CEO Yanming Jiang.

The titles expected on the launch of Bambu include:

 THE ARK OF MR CHOW

  • BATTLE OF MEMORIES
  • BEAUTIFUL ACCIDENT
  • BREAKUP BUDDIES
  • BUDDIES IN INDIA
  • BULLET VANISHES
  • COCK AND BULL (2016)
  • DETECTIVE CHINATOWN
  • THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X
  • DOUBLE TROUBLE
  • THE EX-FILE 3: THE RETURN OF THE EXES
  • EXPLOSION (2017)
  • FALL IN LOVE LIKE A STAR
  • FLEET OF TIME (aka BACK IN TIME)
  • A FOOL
  • FOR A FEW BULLETS
  • FOREVER YOUNG (2015)
  • THE GOLDEN ERA
  • GO AWAY MR TUMOR
  • GOODBYE MR LOSER
  • I BELONGED TO YOU
  • A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME WITH ANTHONY
  • THE LAST WOMEN STANDING
  • LET’S GET MARRIED
  • LOBSTER COP
  • LOST AND LOVE
  • MR DONKEY
  • MR SIX
  • MY LUCKY STAR
  • NAMIYA
  • THE NEW YEAR’S EVE OF OLD LEE
  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK (2016)
  • ONLY YOU (2015)
  • OOLONG COURTYARD: KUNG FU SCHOOL
  • OUR TIME WILL COME
  • SO I MARRIED AN ANTI-FAN
  • SO YOUNG
  • SO YOUNG 2: NEVER GONE
  • SWEET SIXTEEN (2016)
  • TILL THE END OF THE WORLD
  • THE VIRAL FACTOR
  • THE WASTED TIME
  • THE WITNESS (2015)
  • WOMEN WHO FLIRT

The deal follows Cinedigm’s recently-announced partnership with China International TVCorporationto bring more than 500 hours of Chinese content to the U.S. through Bambu, including “Nirvana in Fire,” TV ratings hit in China in 2015; documentary A Bite of China; “Journey to the West,” the most-watched show in Chinese television history, and current series, “The Advisors Alliance” and “Diamond Lover.”

A partnership with Youku to distribute 30 original Chinese feature filmsin North America on all platforms including Bambu, digital, DVD and Blu-ray Disc, and across all OTT platforms, with a primary focus on major streaming platforms and niche outlets.

A content licensing agreement with Starrise Media Holdings Limited to release several Starrise productions on Bambu. The titles have not yet been announced.

Cinedigm Launching Chinese-Centric Bambu SVOD Service

Cinedigm Dec. 10 announced a content licensing agreement with Chinese entertainment company Starrise Media Holdings Limited for the pending over-the-top video platform Bambu in the United States. Title selections, the details of which have not yet been released, will be included as part of the Bambu launch in early 2019.

Bambu’s target users include Gen Z (ages 16-24) and millennial (ages 25-35). Those viewers represent over 27% of the U.S. population. This deal follows licensing partnerships with Chinese media companies Youku and China International TVCorporation.

“We believe that the innovative and creative content currently being produced in China can build a genuine fan base here in the U.S.,” Bill Sondheim, president of Cinedigm Entertainment Group and international distribution, said in a statement.

Cinedigm content deals for Bambu, include partnership with CITC to bring more than 500 hours of popular local content to Bambu, including “Nirvana in Fire,” the most popular show in China in 2015; documentary series “A Bite of China,” and “Journey to the West,” the most-watched show in Chinese television history, and “The Advisors Alliance” and “Diamond Lover”.

A partnership with Youku to distribute 30 original Chinese feature filmsin North America on all platforms, including Bambu, digital, physical DVD and Blu-ray Disc, and across all OTT platforms, with a primary focus on major streaming platforms and niche outlets.

Bambu further advances the Cinedigm’s strategy for the bilateral flow of content and OTT streaming networks between North America and China. Additionally, the Los Angeles-based distributor believes Bambu is an important vehicle to provide audience feedback to Chinese producers working to produce films and television for a global audience.

This direct consumer data should help better inform the development process in China about the categories of entertainment content, stories and character that appeal most to an American and eventually global audience, according to Sondheim.

“Cinedigm is focused on delivering TV shows and movies that convey the current modern Chinese lifestyle which will provide a window into the country’s personality and potentially help build greater trust and understanding between our countries at this pivotal time in the relationships development,” he said.

Cinedigm’s Dove Channel Launches on Comcast Cable

Cinedigm Nov. 26 announced that its subscription video-on-demand service, Dove Channel, is now available similar to Netflix and YouTube via direct access on Comcast’s broadband-based Xfinity X1.

X1 subscribers can access Dove Channel’s library of family friendly movies, children’s programs, documentaries, and TV series, including new and noteworthy titles such as “A Christmas Kiss,” “1500 Steps,” and “Letters to God,” among others.

Xfinity X1 subscribers can access the service by saying “Dove Channel” into their X1 voice remote control or by finding it within the networks section of Xfinity on Demand. Dove Channel can be added to X1 customers’ service for $4.99 per month and included in the monthly cable bill.

Launched in September 2015, Dove Channel was created to offer programming, including children’s fare, that meets the content standards of The Dove Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to encourage and promote the creation, production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment.

“Cinedigm is pleased to bring our top-tier family-focused content to X1 and to reach even more viewers from coast-to-coast,” Bill Sondheim, president of Cinedigm Entertainment Group, said in a statement. “Dove Channel offers unique values-based films and programs that are safe for the whole family and Xfinity X1 is the perfect home for this vast library of inspiring content.”

 

 

 

Cinedigm Partners With Chinese Streaming Channel Youku to Exclusively Distribute 30 Original Feature Films in North America

Cinedigm has announced a partnership with Chinese streaming service Youku to distribute 30 original Chinese feature films in North America on all platforms including digital, DVD and Blu-ray, and OTT, with a primary focus on major streaming platforms and niche outlets.

The films will also be included in the recently announced China-focused OTT channel Bambu that Cinedigm is launching later this year.

The films, never before seen in the United States or Canada, represent a wide range of Chinese film styles including urban thrillers, relationship-driven films, sci-fi fantasy, horror and costume fantasy, according to Cinedigm.

“We are excited to bring these innovative original films to the broad U.S. population in North America that are seeking new cutting-edge film productions from around the world,” said Bill Sondheim, president of Cinedigm Entertainment Group. “These films offer a unique and exclusive viewing opportunity for fans of new production styles and emerging Asian creative talent that is quickly evolving into an important film genre. Cinedigm is committed to help nurture this growing production style and feel the broadening distribution and availability of Youku’s content in mainstream US streaming outlets will be an important catalyst. We are honored with the opportunity provided by Youku to bring these films to hungry outlets throughout the North American distribution ecosystem.”

“Youku is excited to enter this new relationship with Cinedigm to broaden our distribution into America,” said Doria Dai, Youku Pictures producer. “We continue to make compelling original movies and TV series and expect this new cooperation agreement will allow Youku to build an audience of fans in the high-profile American Market.”

The Youku deal is the latest development in Cinedigm’s strategy to forge relationships with China’s leading content producers and distributors. Other deals that Cinedigm is finalizing include licensing current hit TV shows and movies from CITVC, the international licensing arm of CCTV, China’s largest broadcaster; agreements with Shanghai Media Group, the largest regional producer and broadcaster in China; and a relationship with CICC (China Intercontinental Communication Center), according to Cinedigm.