The challenges of releasing independent cinema in Iceland
by Birgit Heidsiek - Europa Distribution
- Europa Distribution shines a spotlight on Bíó Paradís, a cinema and distribution company that is showing European arthouse films in Reykjavík
The “Seven Year Itch” turns out well for the Bíó Paradís, a cinema and distribution company in Iceland that is showing European arthouse films and US independents. With Moonlight, the distributor released a movie that was also booked by other exhibitors in Reykjavík for the first time. “We are releasing the kind of films that other exhibitors don’t want to occupy their screens with,” says Hronn Sveinsdóttir, managing director of Bíó Paradís. “But when Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture, which we had already released in January, another exhibitor wanted to screen it.”
Founded as a non-profit cinema by a society of filmmakers in 2010, Bíó Paradís started out as the only arthouse cinema in Iceland. While the commercial cinemas in Iceland are showing Hollywood movies, the approach of Bíó Paradís is to present independent films from all across the world. The three other distribution companies in Iceland have output deals with the major studios and are programming their own cinemas. “We quickly realised that we didn’t have access to the films that we wanted to screen”, Hronn Sveinsdóttir points out. “Therefore, we had to start our own distribution company.”
Bíó Paradís needs to be self-sufficient. “We rely on our own films which are released in our cinema.” If a film has 1,000 or more cinemagoers, it is a success. The average number of viewers for an independent film is around 500 people or less. It may seem very little, but the perspective can change if we take into account that Iceland has a total number of 300,000 inhabitants. Among them are 120,000 people who live in the capital of Reykjavík. The films that attract a wider audience are Scandinavian movies. “Most of our films are European. The more Nordic they are, the more likely they are to succeed, while films from Italy, Spain or Greece are too exotic for the audience – but there are also exceptions.”
If Hronn Sveinsdóttir believes in a film, she programmes it twice a day. Among Bíó Paradís’ most successful films was Force Majeure [+see also:
interview: Ruben Östlund
film profile] by Ruben Östlund, with about 3,000 moviegoers. 2,500 of the tickets were sold in their own cinema three-plex. The distributor also had high hopes for The Square [+see also:
interview: Ruben Östlund
film profile], which opened slowly due to the warm weather and a popular Icelandic film that was released at the same time.
About three-quarters of the films at the Bíó Paradís are own releases, among them also documentaries. The distributor opens about 25 films per year. “We can’t release films in the summertime. It is easier if we get a film from another distributor because we don’t have to buy, prepare and pay for materials, nor are we responsible for the marketing,” stresses the distributor. “We try to work cost-efficiently, but if we release a film ourselves, it is more work, more expensive, and we run a higher risk.” Among the titles that they got from Icelandic distributors are The Limehouse Golem [+see also:
film profile], The King’s Choice [+see also:
interview: Erik Poppe
film profile] and Final Portrait [+see also:
film profile]. “They often get movies in a package that are more artistic films, which they give to us or put them straight onto VoD.”
When it comes to film acquisitions, Bíó Paradís sometimes struggles with high MG fees that don’t work for the small arthouse market in Iceland. “We can’t pay the same MG for an arthouse film as a distributor in a big country like Sweden,” says the distributor. “Some smaller arthouse sales agents understand that they can’t squeeze more than €500 or €1,000 out of us.” Most of the films that the company releases attract no more than 300 cinemagoers. Therefore, the distributor can’t afford high charges for materials such as trailers, stills, artwork or the screening link for the translator. “We'd rather skip a film because we don’t even have DVD sales, and VoD doesn’t replace that at all.” But the distributor has a very good relationship with the Icelandic TV channel RUV, which is interested in arthouse films. “They are dealing in a relatively small market with a limited budget, but they take a lot of our titles.”
The distributors in Iceland prefer to screen their films in their own cinemas because they make more money with concessions than with ticket sales. It is a tradition in Iceland that all cinemas do intermissions for 15 minutes. “They put on the lights and music in the middle of the film so that people can buy drinks and popcorn,” explains Hronn Sveinsdóttir. “We don’t do that, because it ruins the film.” The only exception is Friday night, when Bíó Paradís presents “Party Screenings” of commercial films such as the Mamma Mia sing-along screenings or the Rocky Horror Picture Show. During the break, the visitors can go to the bar. Drinks and popcorn are an important source of revenue for the cinemas. The average ticket costs almost €13, but 24% of the total is VAT. “We have discounts for students and disabled people, but we also offer six tickets for a discount price as well as a yearly pass.” Thanks to the special events, the downtown cinema in Reykjavik is getting a wider audience every year.
On Saturday, the Bíó Paradís presents special events that are completely sold out. When the digitally restored version of an old Icelandic comedy from 1984 was shown for the first time since then in the presence of all of the actors, even the Icelandic TV covered the event. On Sundays, the Bíó Paradís presents the “Black Sunday” series with a classic film such as Eraserhead. “We ask local people on social media to make a new poster for the film so that they will get excited about the event.” In addition to the 20 special events each month, the cinema also offers a film literacy programme for children, teenagers and college students.
Most of the marketing is launched on social media, such as Instagram and Facebook. “We have up to 40 events at the same time on Facebook,” says the managing director, who runs the cinema and distribution outfit together with one colleague. “We start to market a film three or four months in advance.” The tickets for the special Christmas screenings at the Bíó Paradís were already sold out in September. “It often happens through Facebook and Instagram that people pre-buy tickets online.” The independent distributor also places ads on YouTube and Google. While TV spots and newspaper ads are too expensive, Bíó Paradís also does radio spots. But social media are the most affordable way to market and advertise a film. “It doesn’t cost so much, but it takes time to engage with the audience and to get them involved in an event."
Although social media deliver a lot of information about customers, Bíó Paradís is not into big data yet. “The information about where our audience buys the tickets and whether they go on our articles on social media is available for us, but we don’t have time to analyse it yet,” says Hronn Sveinsdóttir.
Considering how successful Bíó Paradís has become in the last few years, it has every reason to be optimistic about the future. “Our audience is becoming more diverse and more adept in cinema culture. Now we are focusing on raising the next generation, who will grow up with the culture of going to the cinema with their peers, whether it is for Party Screenings or more serious arthouse films,” sums up the managing director of Bíó Paradís. “And we know the commercial cinemas in Iceland and worldwide are suffering because of illegal downloading and competition with other forms of entertainment; we, on the other hand, are growing. The future is bright for Bíó Paradís because what we do cannot be downloaded on Pirate Bay or enjoyed alone on the flat screen at home.”
Before Bíó Paradís came along, this kind of film would not have been screened in Iceland. Hronn Sveinsdóttir finds it more and more difficult to continue distributing the variety of films that she currently releases without better support. “The cost of P&A is simply too high for such a small market, and it takes a lot of effort to market arthouse films over here.” It is clear for her that some things in the distribution model need to be changed if the smaller arthouse titles are going to keep on being distributed and screened in smaller areas such as Iceland. “Larger arthouse titles are doing better with us, so the future is bright in that sense - that we are able to market larger arthouse titles that the general public would not have considered going to before,” concludes the distributor. “Now they are more willing to take a chance on a non-Hollywood film, because they trust our programme and our brand.”
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