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VILNIUS 2023 Meeting Point Vilnius

At Meeting Point Vilnius, panellists share their concerns about bringing people back to the theatres after the pandemic


- Intercepting younger audiences and backing new voices are the two main challenges that festivals, producers and sales agents are facing

At Meeting Point Vilnius, panellists share their concerns about bringing people back to the theatres after the pandemic
l-r: Guillaume De Seille, Ewa Szabłowska, Jule Rozite, Xavier Henry-Rashid and Marta Bałaga during the panel (© Mantas Bartaševičius)

On Day 3, Meeting Point Vilnius (20-22 March), the industry strand of the Vilnius International Film Festival organised in co-operation with the Vilnius Chamber of Commerce, hosted a panel titled “Who's Gonna Watch That?” The talk, moderated by Cineuropa's own Marta Bałaga, saw the participation of producer Guillaume De Seille, of Arizona Film; sales agent Xavier Henry-Rashid, of Film Republic; head programmer Jule Rozite, of the New York Baltic Film Festival; and co-artistic director Ewa Szabłowska, of the New Horizons International Film Festival.

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Bałaga asked first how festivals try to intercept audiences. The mic was handed to Szabłowska. When she started working for New Horizons some years ago, “audience wasn't really the main challenge.” She then explained how it has always been a youth-orientated event aiming to intercept a generation of people interested in cinema and culture. These spectators are now in their 30s and 40s, and their priorities have changed. Nevertheless, the team aims “to keep the festival young.” She highlighted how the generational divide is an important topic to tackle for festivals, as bringing back younger audiences to theatres after the pandemic and following the rise of streaming is certainly not an easy task.

Next, Rozite explained that the New York Baltic Film Festival is a much younger event, now in its 6th year, which attracts a community “who attends any event related to their countries of origin,” and “doesn't hear their [native] language spoken very often.” The festival managed to attract a rather old audience, who was scared to go back to cinemas until last November, with younger spectators “not coming as much as they would have expected.” Rozite said they will try to involve them more, prepping some parties, talks, music sessions or other events to make it more attractive.

Szabłowska agreed with Rozite, pointing out how special events are crucial and must be seen positively just like “whatever brings people out of home and brings them to cinema,” enabling them to benefit from the value of a “social experience.”

Later, Henry-Rashid said that funding bodies are asking producers and sales agents to be more accountable and to identify “target audiences” through “audience design strategies.” “Mostly, these are kind of nonsense. People say 'think of audience,' I say: 'think of distribution'! When you make a film, you've only 100, 200 decision-makers globally that matter. It's not our job to do the audience research on their behalf, we just have to focus on a great story, original storytelling, the financing, etc. and hope these decision-makers – who are festivals, distributors, broadcasters, etc. - can market it well to their demographic.”

“We've heard: 'cinema is dead, apparently.' No, it's not dead, it's just a bit more difficult in terms of numbers, but people are going. […] The topic isn't who is gonna watch it but what are they are gonna watch and where, in what format... We're working in the niche of the niche, [with] the 'nichest' of public.”

De Seille pointed out how his main goal is to work as a co-producer to help the financing of works made by emerging filmmakers with whom to share “a love for cinema,” since with the successful ones, he would just be “number 10 on their list of meetings.”

“I've to deal with sales outfits, festivals and distributors before reaching the audience. My audience is not exactly generalist, my audience are programmers and sales reps [...] My audience is made of 40-50 people, not even 200, and five or six are here in Vilnius. And my best friends are film critics,” he said, adding how some European financing bodies such as the CNC struggle to find experts to make informed decisions.

Henry-Rashid later said that big funds require diversity, eco-friendly plans and gender equality. “I've asked [these bodies]: what's your breakdown of diversity? Do you follow it staff-wise or expert-wise?”

Many of these bodies say that they have either no data available or it is outdated, and often they base their choice only on gender, job profile and nationality, ignoring whether a person is disabled, of colour or of a poorer background. Other issues that Henry-Rashid mentioned during his contribution included marketing youth-orientated films to “80-year-old white men buyers” who feel genuinely “disconnected” from this type of content, the need of being “format-agnostic” and use new tools such as podcasts to assess the potential of a project and taste the market's waters, and the prices “being all over the place,” which causes lower quality films to be bought for more if they “tick all the boxes.” 

“One day it's €1,500 for one of [these films] for all the world [rights], or €6,000 for Latin America. The next day, it's €80,000 for a less good film... There's no correlation, and there's no rule.”

De Seille admitted he feels too old to begin working on series or new formats, but on the topic of diversity he stated how acquisition and programming choices should be driven by quality while others may be too radical or extreme, citing some viewers and decision-makers refusing to deal with films, for example, about women made by men, or made by a director of one ethnicity telling a story about people belonging to another. 

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