In times of crisis, distributors learn to keep a lot of balls in the air
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2020: During an online panel, Eduardo Escudero and Marike Muselaers exchanged survival tips on “Releasing Films in the Age of the Pandemic”
Faced with the sudden closure of cinemas, independent distributors have been experimenting with new ways to release films – as discussed during a Cannes Marché du Film panel entitled “Releasing Films in the Age of the Pandemic”, the second in the series organised by Creative Europe MEDIA with the goal of sharing good practices within the audiovisual industry. “Just as we used to do at our physical stand in Cannes,” observed moderator Ivan Brincat, policy officer at the European Commission, somewhat longingly.
It was up to Eduardo Escudero, distributor at A Contracorriente Films (“a perfect name for foreigners,” he quipped) and Marike Muselaers, co-CEO at Lumière, to explain how their companies have taken the initiative to deal with the crisis, using every tool in their arsenal. “Nobody expected it to happen so fast. During the last two days before the cinemas closed, it felt like a war room,” shared Muselaers. “Luckily, we already had the infrastructure – three years ago, we started an online platform, mainly for our TV shows, out of frustration that sometimes they weren’t available. Now, we’ve decided to put our films online as well.” A Contracorriente also reacted quickly, developing the idea to create an on-demand addition to their cinemas. “I don’t like the word ‘platform’, because our Sala Virtual de Cine [lit. “Virtual Cinema Room”] doesn’t offer hundreds of titles – just a curated selection,” he explained. “We decided that if it’s good for our cinemas, it should be good for others as well, and we invited different distributors to join.” With 81 cinemas on board, new films were released on the platform as well.
As noted by Brincat, most of the “action” is still taking place at home. But even as the restrictions lift, new platforms are here to stay, allowing the audience to catch films with a shorter theatrical lifespan, but also gathering data. “It’s definitely a service that we want to keep,” admitted Muselaers. “We converted 30% of the people who came in to watch a film and persuaded them to try a cinematic TV show as well. We were able to keep some of our cinema staff working, on marketing and communication for the platform, and in those two-and-a-half months, we sold 10,000 ‘tickets’, as we call them.” Also in the case of A Contracorriente, this new initiative is not going anywhere. “There are always new titles coming to VoD, like American B movies. The question was whether we would be able to create a brand, also around a digital release, and the answer is yes. We racked up 30,000 registered users in just one month.” Still, the cost turned out to be the same as with a theatrical release. “We need to discover how to tailor a ‘jacket’ for every film – we can’t apply the same model to a small indie documentary and to The Lion King. We are not in paradise, but we weren’t there before, either,” he added, pointing out that as more films are released, the split ultimately gets bigger and bigger. “Instead of a piece of cake, you get a piece of doughnut.”
But although cinemas still can’t operate at their usual capacity, one needs to start somewhere. “We thought about it – does it make sense to open this summer? But in the end, you have to, even if you just break even or lose money. We can’t have a bigger chain opening and not offer that experience to our audience,” said Muselaers. The solution might lie in choosing films that, as Escudero explained, people actually want to see. “It has been a wonderful experiment, but theatres should still be at the centre. I see some discrepancy between what festivals and critics applaud, and what the audience wants. Perhaps because of the crisis, people want to be entertained. It’s just not the best time for that extra dose of drama.”
While the future still seems a tad hazy, the much-heralded lack of content due to the break didn’t seem to worry them much. “I don’t think we will have a shortage. Also because we work a lot with Scandinavia, and in Sweden, they haven’t stopped filming!” laughed Muselaers, while her colleague pondered the upcoming changes. “I try to participate in the Cannes Marché as much as I can, and it seems that people are still interested in buying films. But the question is, what kind of market will we have in 2021 or 2022?” he wondered. “We have discovered that we need flexibility between exhibitors and distributors – it’s a matter of survival. We can sit and wait, and get splashed in the face, or we can be proactive.” And diversify, choosing to move into production, co-financing or – just like their companies – animation and event cinema, too, also because they are often the ones who risk the most. “I think distributors are the weakest part of the chain,” noted Escudero. “The fact is that we, independent distributors, are very vulnerable. I always say: keep a lot of balls in the air, and if you drop one of them, you concentrate on the rest,” chimed in Muselaers. “However, during the last three months, we’ve seen a huge interest in film over TV. During the lockdown, people wanted something with a beginning and an end. So, among the lessons learnt? People want to see films.” As long as they are entertaining.
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