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France

Alexis Mas • Distributor, Condor Distribution

“Arthouse cinema is not a niche in France, it is a real industry”

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- The CEO of the French company shares how his particular approach as an independent distributor was affected by the situation in 2020 and the first half of 2021

Alexis Mas  • Distributor, Condor Distribution

We sat down with Alexis Mas, CEO of Condor Distribution, who shared with us his particular approach as an independent distributor in France. In 2020, his company enjoyed one of its most successful years in terms of theatrical admissions, due to the lack of new films after the first lockdown. However, the situation became radically different following the announcement of the new reopening on 19 May, with hundreds of titles waiting to be released.

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Cineuropa: How would you define your company’s editorial line?
Alexis Mas:
Condor Distribution was created in 2010 with a very specific approach: on one hand, we are a theatrical distributor focused on foreign arthouse films, releasing 7-8 titles every year. On the other hand, we are also a very active publisher for straight-to-platform and straight-to-video releases. We have a specific line-up for those windows, with more commercial and genre films. This second line saved us during the lockdown, while there was no theatrical distribution.

Unlike most distributors in France, you don’t release many national titles. Was that a strategic approach from the beginning?
Our taste leans more towards foreign works. We started with quite a strong Asian line-up, and now we are more focused on European and US independent titles, from authors like Kelly Reichardt or Debra Granik. The reason why we don't distribute that much French cinema is because most of it is pre-bought at the script stage, which wasn’t our philosophy at the beginning. It’s also a very crowded segment. There are many distributors working with French films. On top of that, it takes much more time and energy in terms of marketing. We do acquire some French films once in a while —it is a must if you want to grow— but it is not our identity.

Let’s talk about the bigger picture. What is your view on the French market for film distribution?
The French market is very cinephile. People like going to the theatre, to watch both blockbusters and small independent titles. Arthouse cinema is not a niche in France, it is a real industry. There are 30 distributors working in this segment and many specialized venues across the country. The other big advantage is a regulated industry. The CNC provides support for the financing and distribution of films. It is a unique system. After the first lockdown, when the industry came back, all the countries stayed stuck because Hollywood was not there. But in France, we restored two-thirds of the value of the market without any American films. Just through French and European titles. In October, just a few days before the second lockdown, the market was back to roughly the value of the year before. That’s a tremendous achievement.

On the other hand, what are the main challenges?
In front of all these advantages, you have the competitive aspect. It is a very crowded market, with many players. Even for a small festival film, we know there will be at least 10 other companies trying to buy it. We have a similar taste, and sometimes this leads to a rise in prices. Before Cannes, there are usually private screenings in Paris to showcase future titles, only for distributors. When I go there and see that people like the films, meaning they don't leave the room, I know it will be very hard.

How do you see your job as a film distributor? What is the value that you bring to the market?
I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t consider it a crucial factor for the success of a film. I believe that a good distributor can entirely change the results. Moreover, everybody needs a distributor in France to produce a film. When you go to seek financing, the first question they ask is who is your distributor. The problem now is that, due to the pandemic, there is a stock of films to be released. Obviously, distributors slowed down the pace of acquisitions, and all the producers are now queueing to get our signature on their projects.

Can you share with us an example of a successful promotional campaign that you had for a European film?
Our biggest success story was Mr Jones [+see also:
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(Agnieszka Holland, 2019), and it happened last year. We had the first box office result in the world with this film. We have more than a dozen examples like this, and there is a reason for that: as I told you before, the independent market is not a niche here. When you combine our strong arthouse market with the work of distributors handling the titles, it can bring some great value to the films.

What was special about the promotion of this film? What do you think was the secret ingredient?
It is a funny story because Mr Jones was the film that almost killed us. We were supposed to release it in mid-March last year, a few days before the first lockdown. It was our biggest film of the year, and we had spent all the money on P&A. Suddenly, we knew it was going to make zero admissions, so we practically lost the company. We managed to survive thanks to the state support. Over the next few months, we refused many offers from TV and platforms and decided to wait until cinemas reopened. Because of the lockdown, our outdoor campaign for the first release was stuck in the walls of Paris. We decided to instrumentalize our bad luck into an opportunity, engaging with the audience through these posters that they had been seeing for three months. In the end, the film made 250k admissions, becoming the biggest box office hit ever for our company.

What is the usual split of income for your titles in terms of the different windows?
For an arthouse film that is intended to be released in cinemas, theatrical represents around 70% of the revenue. DVD and VOD are very low, even in a cinephile country like France, because this kind of titles are not something people want to watch on the small screen. The TV window is very particular, and it can change everything. If Canal+ or ARTE are interested in one of our titles, it could go up to 20-30% of the revenue. If not, it is zero.

At the moment, we don't have a huge problem that most of our colleagues have. The government asked us to lighten up our stock of theatrical releases to ease things after the reopening. We can easily do that because we have all rights for our films, but French titles are different. For these, distributors only have theatrical and DVD rights, but never TV, so it is much more complex.

What do you think about the various measures adopted by the CNC and the French government to sustain the market during the pandemic?
I think it was very positive. There was some general support for all companies, such as lay-off schemes to cover part of the wages. Apart from that, we got support from the CNC, which was multilevel, and clearly helped many companies like ours. We are very lucky in this sense. I have to admit that sometimes I’m fed up with such a regulated industry, but at the same time, I know this is the price to pay to have other advantages. Being able to survive without releasing films in theatres, just because the state and the CNC help us... That’s precious.

What was your take on the plan for a coordinated reopening?
This idea did not come from the CNC, but the professional organizations. We proposed to have a regulated calendar to avoid fierce competition. We were actually disappointed with the reaction of other colleagues. Many distributors found it better to play the law of the market. After the reopening announcement, everybody came out saying they were releasing their titles right away, so all the promises about discipline disappeared. As a result, a proper common calendar is a dead idea. But the independent organizations still push for an ethical chart, with basic rules to avoid big companies taking all the screens in theatres.

How did you start working in film distribution, and what do you think tomorrow will look like?
I always wanted to follow a career with some creative side. I’m not a real artist, so I needed something which combined creativity and business management. To be a good distributor, you have to clearly understand the complexity of a film, which is a work of art, but at the same time, you must sell it to the audience.

As for the future, we clearly see that the streaming world is growing, but I’m very doubtful about their model. Platforms fight each other for exclusivity, but people won’t pay 5-6 different subscriptions to see all their content. Either there is going to be some merging between players or a rise in piracy. We have recently implemented a new model with Amazon based on revenue sharing, meaning we place our titles in their platform, assuming the risks and the promotional costs, and if it works, we share the revenues. I think that could be the model for the future.

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