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“Online access and availability are now based on a blending of different business models, distribution strategies and content selections”

Industry Report: Market Trends

Roderik Smits • Film academic


The academic shared some key findings from his recent study titled Circulation Patterns, Abundance and Scarcity: Film Availability in the Online Era

Roderik Smits  • Film academic

Cineuropa caught up with Roderik Smits, a researcher at Madrid’s Carlos III University. In December, the scholar published a research paper titled Circulation Patterns, Abundance and Scarcity: Film Availability in the Online Era. The document examines how circulation patterns for films are taking shape in the online market. Our conversation focused in particular on the research’s main arguments, the current market fragmentation, and how the concepts of scarcity and abundance are being redefined. The study can be accessed here.

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Cineuropa: What is the purpose of your research?
Roderik Smits:
I analysed how circulation patterns for films are taking shape in the online market. Online distribution is often talked about positively as having an enriching impact on the availability of films. The assumption is that it provides access to a wider and more diverse range of films than the DVD/Blu-ray market and the television market, and even more so than the theatrical cinema market. That assumption is, in various ways, entrenched in some of the liberal principles that are associated with how the online market has enlarged itself in order to flourish, building on the notions of limitless content abundance and audience access to films. However, the market has become increasingly fragmented, and some VoD platforms have changed business models, distribution strategies and content selections. Therefore, I analysed the shape and structure that circulation patterns for films have taken in the online film market.

What are your main arguments?
I argue that new business models adopted by VoD platforms have reshaped circulation patterns. The effect is that those platforms have redefined the way that on-demand culture is experienced by audiences, in terms of their expectations about access to films. In addition, I argue that it has become increasingly challenging to think about online availability through a crude binary opposition between scarcity and abundance. The reality is more complex and nuanced because the online market for VoD platforms has become increasingly fragmented.

How did you collect your data?
I developed a case study on film circulation patterns in Germany. The focus was specifically on European, specialised films – also known as independent and arthouse films – on a large number of 19 VoD platforms in the German market. I analysed the availability of 150 European, specialised films across the 19 platforms. Databases such as Lumiere VOD and JustWatch were used to collect data about the online availability of films in the sample.

I wanted to focus on online distribution of independent films in Europe to take discussions about circulation patterns in a new direction. There are some very insightful studies that focus on European films or national films, but such categories don’t distinguish between mainstream and independent films, which makes it difficult to understand how they circulate online. We know that it is often challenging for independent movies to circulate widely in the theatrical cinema market, but how widely do they circulate in the online market?

Why did you focus your research on the German market?
Germany is among the largest markets for film production, distribution and exhibition in Europe. It is also among the largest markets for VoD platforms in Europe. As in many European countries, Germany comprises a range of nationally orientated VoD platforms as well as global and transnational ones.

What are the main circulation patterns that you identified?
I found that 83% of European, specialised films in the sample were available to audiences on the selected 19 VoD platforms in Germany in 2020. Many of those films were available on between five and ten platforms in Germany, and some movies were available on as many as between 11 and 13 platforms. That demonstrates that they circulate widely and provide audiences with several online viewing options.

I also analysed to what extent individual platforms in Germany engage with the sample of European, specialised films, and found that some platforms provide wide access to such titles, while others provide access to a relatively low number of such films. Thus, it seems problematic to use a single concept of abundance to describe the often quite different content strategies and selections of the companies that might be seen as making an abundance of film titles available to audiences.

How will circulation patterns evolve in the medium to long term?
I found that online access and availability are now based on a blending of different business models, distribution strategies and content selections. And I expect that to remain the case in the near future. One important development is, of course, that some powerful global SVoD streamers are increasingly investing in films that become available on their streaming platforms only. That will have an impact on circulation patterns, further complicating thoughts about what the logics of scarcity and abundance mean in the online era.

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