San Sebastián 2021 – San Sebastián Industry
Industry Report: Distribution, Exhibition and Streaming
Europa Distribution discusses the “new normal” for independent film distribution in San Sebastián
According to the participants, for independent distributors this pandemic was yet another test to prove their readiness in facing challenging changes
Things change and practices evolve in all businesses, and the pandemic seems to have pushed the accelerator extra hard for the film industry. After almost two years of co-existence with Covid-19, it is clear that many things we were used to will not go back to being just as “before” and in the fast-evolving arena of the film industry, where every small shift creates a domino effect across all the different players, this is especially true. Where there is change, there is also adaptation. How have independent film distributors adapted to this “new normal”?
Renewing its long-term partnership with the San Sebastián Film Festival, Europa Distribution organised on 19-23 September a public panel and a private workshop to examine the ideas, experiments and best practices that independent distributors have been testing during the pandemic, putting in the spotlight those innovations that are here to stay.
The public panel, held in the San Telmo Museum on 20 September and moderated by Michael Gubbins, brought together the expertise of four distributors coming from countries with very different film industries, that dealt differently with the Covid situation. Going from Greece, where the pre-Covid average yearly admittance rate was 0.8 and admissions dropped by 67% from 2019 to 2020, to Sweden, where many independent cinemas chose to stay open even if only for 8 viewers per screen, and via the Netherlands and the Czech Republic where the co-existence of theatrical and VoD releases was already well established in the pre-Covid era, the panellists offered concrete examples showing how this worldwide pandemic has had a different impact on local realities, calling for different solutions.
Christina Pelekani from Feelgood Entertainment started by illustrating the Greek context (read more about film distribution in Greece here) that saw an already low cinema attendance drop drastically due to the two lockdowns that kept cinemas closed on and off for 12 months between 2020 and 2021. Having theatrical releases at the core of its business, Feelgood's first concern was to find solutions that could support cinemas, while keeping films circulating. They released Michalis Konstantatos' All the Pretty Little Horses [+see also:
interview: Michalis Konstantatos
film profile] online through ticketing platforms that could sell virtual seats at virtual screenings, recreating digitally the cinema experience. The revenues were shared at 50% with the exhibitors. Although the results in terms of admissions were not great, the operation brought awareness to the title that will be released theatrically in October, and it strengthened the connection with exhibition.
Esther Kollmann from the Netherlands acknowledged that Cinéart was able to sail through the Covid storm relatively safely thanks to the exceptional theatrical successes of the previous year, which guaranteed the company not only a good financial stability but also a strong catalogue of films to feed the VoD selection in 2020 and 2021. But Cinéart also did not hesitate to go straight to VoD with 20 brand new titles, and to invest more resources into digital campaigns. It was an opportunity to dedicate more energies to their B2C activities, working on the company's already established brand to strengthen the direct connection with the audience and create awareness about new releases. Another way to connect with the audience was to have a Cinéart channel on Amazon, that people could subscribe to directly.
Already having a strong VoD base was key to Aerofilms' success during the pandemic, explained Czech distributor Alzbeta Dlouhá. The company, which also manages 7 cinemas, had created Aerovod already in 2013 and in 2020 the platform quintupled its number of viewers. The Czech documentary Caught in the Net [+see also:
film profile] released by Aerofilms straight to VoD was the biggest film of the year in the Czech Republic and the company's biggest title ever. For the release of Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn [+see also:
interview: Radu Jude
film profile] since cinemas were reopening on a limited capacity, the company chose to have a mixed theatrical and on-demand release and found that the availability of the film online was not taking away any audience from the cinemas: online viewing helped instead to create a bigger buzz around the film.
Changing perspective and moving to Sweden, a country where for the audience paying for premium online content was already a well-established practice even before the pandemic, Emelie Samuelsson from TriArt warned about the importance of focusing on theatrical release to bring people back to the cinemas. During the pandemic, despite the fact that the Swedish government never imposed cinemas' closures, the main cinema chain, faced with capacity limitations, decided at some point to close its venues. This gave independent cinemas the chance to step up, despite being limited to 8 viewers per screen, and it was in these circumstances that TriArt released the documentary Greta [+see also:
interview: Nathan Grossman
film profile], its biggest title of the year, keeping it for one week in cinemas only and then opening to VoD and sharing revenues with cinemas.
On 21 September all participating members of Europa Distribution took part in a private workshop where they compared experiences of recent releases, discussing their adaptation strategies to the pandemic.
Monica Felea from Bad Unicorn (Romania), Nadezda Motina from Capella Film (Russia), Ioanna Panagiotidou from Rosebud.21 (Greece), Igor Stankovic from MCF Megacom (Serbia) and Nille Stormoen from Arthaus (Norway) discussed the marketing choices and the admission results related to their respective releases of Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round [+see also:
film profile]. All of them positioned the film as a crossover, aiming at a larger audience that could go beyond cinephiles. As a celebration of life and of the joy of being together with friends, the film was clearly hitting a soft spot after all these months at home. And the audience recognised the film as something worth watching in the cinemas, whenever possible.
Gianluca Buttari (Teodora Film) and Lukasz Chrusciel (Tongariro Releasing) presented the analysis of the Italian and Polish releases of Two of Us [+see also:
interview: Filippo Meneghetti
film profile]. Teodora Film chose to market the film as a thriller more than a love story to attract a broader audience and worked with the press on the Italian nationality of the director. In order to meet his desire to have his first feature seen in cinemas, as well as in consideration of its relationship with cinemas, Teodora Film chose not to put the film online but to wait for cinemas to reopen. Tongariro chose to stay closer to the tenderness of the romance love story in its marketing strategy. As a distributor focused on LGBTQ content in a country ruled by a homophobic government, Tongariro always had to find alternative ways to promote its films and over time it has managed to find its audience mainly online. But while for many films Tongariro only does VoD releases, with this film they chose to also address theatre audiences, convinced that the film's quality would allow them to reach beyond their niche.
Kim Foss (Camera Film) and Sabine Hofmann (Polyfilm) discussed the Danish and Austrian releases of Roy Andersson's About Endlessness [+see also:
interview: Roy Andersson
film profile]. Both distributors were expecting the film to perform well thanks to the success of the director's previous title but despite their efforts, it did not meet the expected number of admissions. Foss explained that during the pandemic, Camera Film put a lot of energy into digital and the promotion of their VoD channel but that theatrical is still simply irreplaceable.
Finally, Aistė Racaitytė from Kino Pavasaris (Lithuania) discussed the release of Corpus Christi [+see also:
interview: Bartosz Bielenia
interview: Jan Komasa
film profile]. As all of the company's titles, Corpus Christi was launched on the occasion of the Kino Pavasaris Festival that in 2020 had to move online. Since the biggest Lithuanian cinema chain would not screen the film because it had been streamed online, they decided to keep the film on the digital platform and, when theatres re-opened, some independent cinemas decided to screen it anyway. It was the biggest success of the year for arthouse cinema in Lithuania.
From the different discussions held by distributors, some common points clearly emerged: the growing necessity of eventifying screenings in order to bring back audiences to cinemas; the opportunity represented by VoD as an ancillary to theatrical and the possibility for both to co-exist in order to reach different audiences; the urgency to fight online piracy, and the need to educate older audiences to VoD while educating the younger one to the pleasure of the cinematic experience.
For independent distributors, this pandemic was yet another test to prove their readiness in facing challenging changes, showing their capacity for quick reactions even in uncertain situations. While a worldwide phenomenon, Covid-19 did not hit all countries the same way. It found a variety of political responses, some more sensitive to the need to protect cultural sectors than others. It touched local markets where the audience was already used to paying premium prices for new content, and others where issues like piracy and the consumers' age have made VoD a difficult path. While each distributor chose a different course of action to deal with the pandemic, facing its own local reality, they all seem to be led by their passion for cinema as the main reason for staying in this crazy business.
The full recording of the event is here:
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