Experts at the Zurich Summit discuss luring audiences to see arthouse titles
by David Katz
- A panel of four international executives in the theatrical space spoke about audience retention and development at arthouse theatres, as well as co-existing with the streamers
Of all the areas of the international film business discussed at this year’s Zurich Summit, the question of the box-office hopes for speciality films felt laden with the most insecurity. As brick-and-mortar sites worldwide have felt the pressure from shifting audience tastes and the high-quality entertainment offered by streaming platforms, there’s an existential concern about their continued survival, especially with the streamers’ “disruption” ethos attempting to streamline the relationship between product and consumer. Yet as the pandemic has wound down, attendance and revenue internationally, and in Europe, have brought enlivening signs, with the producers and rights-holders of various films pointing to the enduring truism that “theatrical drives ancillary”. And two out of the four guests at the panel entitled “How to Find an Audience for Arthouse Films?” described themselves as “optimists”, without giving any sense of insincere false pride. The romance of “strangers gathering in the dark” was not forgotten, as regards the theatrical experience, because of its significance to how the majority of “film people” grew up loving movies – and also, you just can’t survive in this industry without that kind of passion.
Chaired by Deadline editor Mike Fleming Jr, the on-stage panel at the Dolder Grand was composed of Christian Bräuer, managing director of Yorck-Kinogruppe, the Berlin cinema chain; Stephanie Candinas, the co-managing director of Zurich arthouse chain Arthouse Commercio Movie AG; Kristen Figeroid, managing director and EVP of sales agent Sierra/Affinity; and David Laub, acquisitions and distribution executive at US distributor and production house A24.
Across the hour of discussion, the panellists were all in alignment on how the pandemic created further uncertainty for their business, whilst holding onto a sense of optimism that audiences will want to return to cinemas after two years of predominantly viewing content at home. Figeroid spoke specifically about the fates of three titles of hers, The Lost Daughter [+see also:
film profile], Passing [+see also:
film profile] and Pig, saying that she didn’t know “what would have happened without those options during the pandemic. Sitting on movies and seeing what would have happened down the road is a scary prospect. But all three ended up being success stories – Passing we sold independently to Netflix, The Lost Daughter was already sold to independent distributors across the world, and Pig was picked up by Neon, and they all eventually got awards recognition.” Furthermore, she noted, “It's always scary when you get into an arthouse movie. You read a script, and hopefully you're loving it and the filmmaker involved, but you really have to assume that it's going to go to a festival or going to get accolades. Otherwise, why would anyone know about it? Why would anyone see it? You know, genre movies can live by being mediocre, but arthouse cinema cannot.” Echoing many comments from other panels at the event on what justifies a theatrical release, Laub agreed that “you have to feel really compelled to come out. And so, in a way, I would say it's the most excellent ones [that do].”
Bräuer put forward one of the most insightful comments of the session, pointing out the “outdated” notion of dividing the arthouse audience into “young and old”. “We maybe forget about the young audience because even people of 40 today are digital natives, kind of,” he said, whilst emphasising that he’s “more optimistic about the young generation, because that's the future”, and indeed, people of around 30 are the chief demographic of his cinemas and are driving the post-pandemic recovery. Candinas also spoke of the necessity of “added value” for this generation of moviegoers, as opposed to the staple, mature-age arthouse audience: “With customers together and film lovers, I think cinemas could be an inspiring place for everyone. It needs to be an experience, compared to the streaming platforms. I mean, Zurich is not that big, but it's a big city for Switzerland. So we're competing with the opera, live theatre, gallery openings and museums. That means we really have to make a difference. And it's not only the movie that draws people to the cinema. Some of our prime locations were built in the 1960s – if we had better locations with nicer food, and maybe discussions where we bring filmmakers, it would be beneficial. Something more to really expand the experience.”
Coming back to the question of content, Laub made one of the more cautious, phlegmatic points of the day, when he pointed to the incoming new English-language arthouse slate that will start rolling out this autumn in the United States and through winter in Europe: “This autumn is going to be very interesting because you have a lot of really good prestige titles coming out that appeal to the more traditional, older arthouse audience. And we've just had Telluride, Toronto and Venice. A lot of these movies are getting highly acclaimed, and we have, again, films that really are exciting to people and thrilling to the older audience. Can movies that feel bigger, and get awards nominations, come back, and will an audience start to come back?” Bräuer and Candinas agreed on the necessity of subscription services to help balance the books for titles that underperform at their sites, with the former saying regarding Yorck-Kinogruppe, “Way too many of our processes are still analogue, for example, such as booking and billing, and it would be much better to invest this time and money in audience development.” Linking again to the customer loyalty provided by membership services at these cinema chains, Laub spoke of a key factor in A24’s help in turning the tide on arthouse filmgoing in the USA: the creation of “community”. “That kind of loyalty seems to be very important in helping push people to come back and try new things, and not just go for only the most obvious fare,” he reminded the audience.
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