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Roderik Smits • Film academic

"Sales agents and distributors remain equally – if not more – important to the creation and circulation of films in international markets"


- Cineuropa talked to film academic Roderik Smits about his new book on film distribution, Gatekeeping in the Evolving Business of Independent Film Distribution

Roderik Smits  • Film academic

Roderik Smits is an academic researcher who has worked on various projects related to the changing nature of the screen industries and recently published the book Gatekeeping in the Evolving Business of Independent Film Distribution (please click here for further details). He has co-organised academic-industry events to enhance knowledge exchange and has written several short articles for Cineuropa about subjects such as film distribution, film release strategies and online platforms (click here to read them). We spoke to him on the occasion of the launch of his new book.

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Cineuropa: What can academic research contribute to our knowledge of the film industry?
Roderik Smits: It is important to acknowledge that organisations such as the European Audiovisual Observatory, film agencies and consultancy companies undertake very relevant research about the film industry in Europe. Their research is often based on statistical measures to analyse the production, distribution and consumption of films, providing a precise picture of the current state of play and power dynamics between powerful studios and independent companies. There is an important role to play for academic researchers to help explain the factors that influence those statistical outcomes. In recent years, a growing number of academics have started to focus on social, economic and cultural factors to develop that discussion. They provide a more granular understanding of business strategies, industry practices and work processes.

Where does your book on film distribution sit within those discussions?
The book focuses on the role of sales agents and distributors at a time of change and disruption in the film industry. They operate as powerful gatekeepers with influence over the types of films that are able to circulate to international markets, well beyond the national or domestic markets within which they originate. I analyse the functions of these gatekeepers in order to understand where power and control lie in relation to the circulation of films: which movies reach which audiences in the marketplace, how those films reach these audiences, and how distribution impacts on the commercial performance of these titles. My analysis provides insight into their decision making and ability to exert power and control over the process of enabling or disabling access to films.

How has distribution changed with the development of the online market?
It is clear that the film distribution business is in a state of transition, and that Netflix and Amazon have already changed the power dynamics. The changing nature of film distribution is strongly associated with digital disruption and dis-intermediation arrangements, whereby gatekeepers are cut out of the distribution process. I challenge the narrative of dis-intermediation in my book. My research shows that sales agents and distributors are responding to new online opportunities and remain equally – if not more – important to the creation and circulation of films in international markets.

Looking beyond Netflix and Amazon, how has distribution changed for smaller, independent production companies?
The development of the online market has encouraged some small-scale producers at the specialised end of the market to experiment with arrangements such as direct distribution and self-distribution. However, their experiences have demonstrated that it is very challenging to take over the work of distributors, particularly in terms of organising the theatrical cinema release. It is often more rewarding for them to develop a closer relationship with sales agents in order to enable online access to films in international markets where distribution rights have not been sold to a distributor.

What can we expect from future academic research?
Several academics, including myself, are working on research about online platforms. There is an increased focus on platforms in relation to original productions and exclusivity arrangements, film circulation and business models, audience recommendations through human curators and algorithm technology, and audience consumption and diversification. My own research project [read more here] examines how online platforms engage with and support non-mainstream, specialised films. I am particularly interested in the availability and visibility of such movies in the online market.

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