Everything you always wanted to know about distribution but were afraid to ask
by Isabella Weber - Europa Distribution
- During the Rome Film Fest, Europa Distribution led a participative debate that delved into the activities of distributors
Outside the cinema industry, there is not much awareness about the existence of a special bridge that takes a film from being made to being seen, and that bridge is called “distribution”. So what is it that distributors actually do? Addressing this topic via an open panel organised in partnership with The Business Street and the MIA (International Audiovisual Market) during the Rome Film Fest, Europa Distribution threw down the gauntlet, sparking a participative debate that matched the promise contained within its title: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Distribution But Were Afraid to Ask.
The make-up of the panel in itself offered a wide overview of what distribution is today, ranging from American independent distributor Bleecker Street Media (Kent Sanderson) to big European independents such as Italy’s Lucky Red (Stefano Massenzi), the documentary-focused Dogwoof, based in the UK (Andy Whittaker), Benelux’s Paradiso (Olivier Mortagne), Lithuanian outfit Kino Pasaka (Greta Akcijonaite) and Czech company Aerofilms (Ivo Andrle), known as one of the first European independent distributors to have built its own VoD platform. Susan Wendt, of Danish sales company TrustNordisk, offered the panel another angle from which to approach what turned out to be a rather broad topic.
Andreas Wiseman (Screen International), the moderator of the panel, started the discussion with the big question: what does it mean to be a distributor today?
As was pointed out by Mortagne, over the last few years, distribution has lost the “safety net” it once had with television and DVD, and the financial risks taken when buying a film are harder to pay off. At the same time, the number of films produced every year has grown exponentially, and the lifespan of movies has become much shorter as a result. “Too many films are being made!” lamented Whittaker, voicing the general frustration of distributors who fight to find an audience for their movies. The strategy used to approach this problem varies and depends on many factors. “With Aerofilms, each time we tried to pick a film only to do business, it was a failure. Passion in my company is a key factor; we need to love the films we pick to make them work,” stated Andrle. But the CEO of Lucky Red, Massenzi, warned: “Our role as an independent distributor is to find movies that are not ‘obvious’ but that can still appeal to a relatively large audience. I don’t like talking about ‘niche’. We had a good ‘passion case’ with Philomena [+see also:
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film profile], which was a huge hit. But it doesn’t always go like that: take Nebraska, for instance. We loved it and pushed it in any way we could, but it was a failure compared to what we had expected. The truth is that passion can also be misleading; it can make you lose perspective on the real potential of a film.”
Good reviews and festival prizes are essential to ensuring a successful release, but the role of film critics and festivals is changing. The panel commented on the growing distance between audiences and film critics, who seem more and more detached from the general public. “Opinion makers now come from elsewhere, and they can be far more influential than journalists from the field,” remarked Andrle. On the other hand, the number of both local and international festivals is growing, and these gatherings are now considered to be an alternative to traditional distribution for some titles. “With the international life of a film becoming shorter and shorter, festivals often represent an occasion to show a film even to distributors. We could not translate the role of film markets to the online world: you need to be there to feel the vibe, to hear the talk of the town,” remarked Wendt, bringing in a sales agent’s point of view. Sanderson also pointed out that small festivals can work well to test arthouse films out on local audiences and to boost them within the territory. According to Whittaker and Massenzi, Rome represents a good occasion for the industry to meet in between Cannes and Berlin: the growing importance of the MIA was recognised by all of the panellists. “We all do business every day, but markets create a buzz and some healthy competition.”
On the role of the “A” class festivals’ prizes, the discussion became quite heated. Massenzi remarked that even the Cannes Palme d’Or stops working as a marketing tool if the prize is given year after year to films not appreciated by the audience. On this topic, Lucius Barre, an international publicist present in the audience, added that it has been statistically proven that movies labelled as “Cannes films” do not do well commercially, even in France.
With the arrival of Netflix in Italy midway through the Rome Film Fest, the changing scenery of the VoD world was on everybody’s mind. “Sometimes I have a nightmare,” confessed Andrle. “I am at the Cannes Film Market, and I see all of the booths hanging out the sign ‘Sold out to Netflix’. But when I awake I try to look on the bright side, and I hope that the arrival of Netflix could raise awareness about the possibility of legally consuming VoD. I think it could introduce a great change in viewing habits that we could all benefit from.” While Aerofilms can count on an established VoD platform in the Czech Republic, other Eastern European countries still stand a few steps behind and wonder. “In Lithuania, there is no legal VoD platform so far, so I expect the arrival of Netflix to revolutionise the market overnight. To be safe, I would buy some shares in Netflix for my company… just in case,” joked Akcijonaite. The concerns about Netflix are in fact shared by the whole film industry: “There is a risk that films bought by Netflix with worldwide licences may not make it into theatres anymore,” commented Wendt. Adding to this, Mortagne complained that Netflix does not pay according to the number of its viewers, as they only give the global figures, not the local ones. It is a fact that the core of Netflix’s catalogue is built upon TV series, and that films are considered gap-fillers and are paid for accordingly. Nevertheless, according to Massenzi, this is all a fake problem: “Our real competitor is TV. All of the talents are moving towards TV series, in Europe as well as in America; think of Gomorrah in Italy or The Returned in France. Series have a way of connecting with the audience in a completely different way, which relies on time. The problem is not Netflix, it is persuading people to leave their sofas.” In the USA, Netflix is now old news, and Sanderson already points towards Amazon as a provider to look closely at and to find creative ways to work with.
As for the question of geo-blocking and why European distributors need it, the panel had a very simple answer: to exist. “It would seem that whoever came up with the idea of a European Digital Single Market (DSM) not only doesn’t know anything about film distribution, but is also completely unaware of the mechanism that regulates the whole film industry. The idea of giving access to the same content to all European citizens at the same time does not take into account one problem: films would not exist if it wasn’t for the work that distributors put into their promotion,” asserted Massenzi. The panel made a strong point about the difference between having films available on a platform and actually getting the audience to know anything about them. “Also, pre-sales of arthouse movies would be impossible if it weren’t for territoriality. Only big, mainstream products could benefit from a DSM,” remarked Wendt. Stepping into the conversation, Christine Eloy of Europa Distribution reminded everyone present that the European Commission would produce a legal proposal on portability this December, while cross-border access is still under discussion and is being fought by the entire industry. “We recommend that distributors and all members of the film industry actively take part in the current debate on the DSM. This is the time to have our voice heard; otherwise, decisions that profoundly affect us will be made without us,” concluded Eloy.