A focus on Greece by Europa Distribution
by Jesús Silva - Europa Distribution
- The European distributors network sheds some light on the situation of independent film distribution in the Mediterranean country
Europa Distribution continues its tour around Europe, in order to shed some light on the situation of independent film distribution across the continent. After our recent articles on countries such as Russia and Lithuania, Iceland and the UK, we headed south to report on the individual aspects of the Greek market, and the challenges faced by its professionals. The members of Europa Distribution operating in the Hellenic Republic offered us a common portrait of a highly competitive market, which has undergone significant changes due to the impact of the last economic crisis in 2008. A large number of releases, a great sensitivity to the weather, a limited amount of windows and a constant search for new business models are just some of the main traits of the film distribution market in Greece.
An overloaded market
There is an absolute consensus among national distributors when it comes to identifying the key obstacle to overcome in their market; “the problem is that there are almost 400 films being released in Greece every year, and that is completely crazy,” says Irini Souganidou, Managing Director of Feelgood Entertainment.
Established back in 2009, during the Greek economic crisis and recession, Feelgood started as a small arthouse theatrical company, acquiring independent titles, such as Dogtooth [+see also:
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film profile] by Yorgos Lanthimos (their first theatrical release), and gradually becoming the market leader and the exclusive distributor for all Disney and Sony pictures in Greece and Cyprus. According to their Theatrical Market Update (2017), over the past three years the number of films released in Greece went from 312 in 2015, up to 388, last year. Nevertheless, this significant increase has not generated a substantial growth in admissions, which in 2017 amounted to a total of 10,060,065 (far from the peaks of the market in 2007 and 2009, which had more than 12 million admissions and a total GBO close to 100€ million).
“The competition in Greece is pretty severe. Distributors are very competitive against each other, and we also have too many films for the size of our market,” as explained by Stella Kechagia, Head of Marketing in Seven Films, a company focused mainly on arthouse and independent titles (Cold War [+see also:
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film profile] are some of their latest acquisitions). “I think there are more distributors and films than this market supports,” concludes Kechagia. This is a concern widely acknowledged by all Europa Distribution members in the country, which spans over the whole distribution process, beginning with the strong competition between buyers during the festivals season.
Zinos Panagiotidis, veteran distributor and current president of Rosebud21, explains that when his company was founded 25 years ago, “the market was very different.” Back then, only a handful of companies were specialised in arthouse films, but according to the Hellenic Film Commission there are currently 20 distributors operating in the country, most of them releasing independent films to a greater or lesser extent. According to Souganidou, the unprecedented number of film releases, and distributors, “has completely altered the rules of the game, and the ones who have suffered the most are the arthouse titles.” As a result of this tendency, it has become increasingly difficult for independent distributors to find the proper circuit for their films, as well as to take care of them individually.
Ioanna Panagiotidis, Head of distribution at Rosebud, speaks clearly about this issue. “Some companies release one or two films every week, and that way it is impossible to work properly on these titles.” On the other hand, some distributors also point out that their relationship with exhibitors is not always easy. Given the wide range of options available and their emotional detachment from the films, if a specific title is not performing well on its first week, exhibitors will most likely pull it out and go for a new release. “Of course the big blockbusters don’t need support, everyone wants to see them and the exhibitors are more than happy to accommodate, but some films need more time and work on a word of mouth basis,” says Souganidou. Most of distributors agreed that it has become almost impossible to secure a film during its first week, and with so many titles being released “there is no time to make something actually work” (Kechagia).
This situation has lead to a new trend in recent years, with a lot of distributors deciding to take over cinemas in order to skip the negotiations and release their films directly at the theatres.
Stepping into exhibition
With a total of 496 screens (232 of which are located in Athens), Greece has experienced a modest growth in the number of cinemas during the past few years, due in part to the decision of many distributors to step into the exhibition business. “That’s happening because there is no room for the films to work. We suddenly have a need to have our own cinemas, so we can find a place for our movies,” (Kechagia). There is actually a new model that is being implemented by many Greek distributors, consisting on renovating and reopening old cinemas across the country.
After previously expanding into the music industry, representing Sony Music in Greece, Feelgood acquired its first open air cinema this summer, which started functioning in June. “We believe there is a problem with exhibition, so we decided to bring our ‘feelgood approach’ to this direction.” The same applies for Seven Films, which has recently bought an open air cinema in Athens, where they screen both their own films and also those from competitors. “If you have your own theatre your life as distributor is much easier,” admits Panagiotidis, whose company is also looking into this possibility, which has become one of the biggest shifts in the Greek distribution market. “There are some theatres that 5-10 years ago nobody was interested in, but now everyone is looking for them.” As for multiplexes, which seize the biggest portion of the exhibition market, there hasn’t been any meaningful change over the past few years, showing a situation of monopoly dominated by two major chains. “There is no room for us to compete with the multiplexes,” states Kechagia. Village is the indisputable leader, holding around 37% of the market share, while Odeon -recently merged with Ster- has another 20%. “There hasn’t been any new player but one, called Cineplexx, which has renovated an old multiplex in Thessaloniki and now is doing a pretty good job.” (Souganidou)
Distinct seasonality and geography
One of the most peculiar traits of the Greek distribution market is linked to its strong seasonality, which influences not only the number and type of films being released in each period, but also the venues where these releases take place. In the summertime, if the weather is good, multiplexes lose attendance while the open air cinemas become the most popular option (there were 160 of them registered in 2017). The market relies strongly on the open air theatres, which have around 65% of the share during summer, so when these can not work properly because of the meteorological conditions it affects the whole market. “We are very sensitive to the weather. This summer, for the second year in a row, we had a very rainy and abnormal weather in Greece, so we couldn’t make any success with open air cinemas. The whole market was in complete despair and depression,” reveals Souganidou.
Regarding the differences in programming, most distributors focus on arthouse and more independent titles for their winter releases, while opting for more family-friendly and commercial alternatives for the summer. Stella Kechagia, from Seven Films, confirms that their company works a lot during summer, taking a completely different approach towards the films they release: “We like to do reissues of old titles for the open air cinemas. We also change a lot the genre of the films being released during this season, trying to have more comedies and light films.” As for Rosebud, whose policy is usually to release around 10 movies per year (6 for winter and 4 during summer), Panagiotidis also noticed a particular trend among their moviegoers. “There is a particular audience that doesn’t go to the theatres in winter because they prefer the open air cinemas. There they can drink, eat, smoke… It is a more ‘complete’ entertainment. We have also noticed that people become more upscale in summer, so they tend to spend more money on leisure.”
Another important particularity has to do with the geographical distribution of admissions in Greece, presenting a huge difference in cinema attendance between the big cities and the provincial towns. Almost 60% of the admissions come from Athens, another 15% from Thessaloniki -second biggest city- and the remaining 25% comes from the provinces. “The difference is huge. We do work with all Greece but most of the times we release first in Athens and Thessaloniki, and only then we go to the towns,” admits Kechagia.
These numbers become even more drastic when focusing specifically on independent titles: “Except for Athens and Thessaloniki, the admissions for arthouse films are close to zero in other cities” (Panagiotidis). The landscape of the country itself presents a big challenge for distribution activities. 80% of Greece consists of mountains or hills, making the country one of the most mountainous in Europe, and it also features thousands of different islands (more than 200 of which are inhabited). “Because Greece is so dispersed, with many small islands and villages, it is specially complex for distribution compared to other countries where things are more compacted,” as explained by Feelgood’s director.
This singularity has an impact in all the different phases of the work chain: from booking to monitoring as well as checking and collecting revenues, which has become a real issue in Greece in the past decade. “In our business we usually have to pay the money up front. We need to advance our expenses so we really need a lot of money to be able to afford the cash flow, from collecting to actually paying on time all our costs” (Souganidou).
Limited windows for distribution
The latest economic and financial crisis, which was especially rampant in Greece, had a negative impact on almost every economic sector, and film distribution was no exception. When it comes to windows for distribution, the recession severely affected the Greek market, limiting the number of options and its flexibility, with some traditionally established businesses even facing closure.
Theatrical release is currently the only viable platform for distribution, but taking into account its limitations (namely the overloaded market), a lot of films don’t even get the chance to show their potential. “Many films are being destroyed essentially since the other platforms of exploitation in Greece have been killed by the recession and the illegal downloading,” regrets Souganidou. The platform that has suffered the most was DVD, which used to perform really well in the country with a significant share of the revenues. Greece had an important rental and retail market on home entertainment, but its size has decreased by almost 80% compared to 10 years ago. This trend has been particularly noted by SevenFilms, which apart from its distribution and exhibition activities owns a chain of retail stores – former video rental shops. “The DVD market used to be strong in Greece, but that is not the case anymore. Most of the times we have a fixed demand of DVDs that we share with 100-150 stores, and that is it. There is no great sale or rental anymore,” clarifies Kechagia. “We have actually changed the profile of our shops. Now it is mainly an entertainment store, focusing on retail technology and gaming.”
As for the digital market, it is almost non-existent in Greece, with most initiatives working still on an infancy stage. “The investment is more than the actual revenue,” states Souganidou. International platforms are becoming increasingly interested in the country, with Netflix recently launching a local version and including Greek subtitles for some content. At the same time, some national VoD services like OTT are also experiencing a growing tendency, but the figures so far are insignificant: “It feels promising, but still no results” (Panagiotidis).
On the other hand, pay-TV is one of the only real alternatives at the moment, with two major players operating in the market, OTE and Nova. The latter used to hold the monopoly on pay-TV for years, but after experiencing financial issues OTE managed to get a lot of members and content, acquiring a very solid position and becoming the only “trustworthy partner” for distribution in Greece. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Greek pay-TV market suffered an unexpected loss in subscribers during the past couple of years, as exposed in a 2017 report by the Greek paper Kathimerini. For the first time since the incursion of OTE, the service has experienced a notable fall in customers (almost 15,000 less), due in part to the new tax impositions and the effects of piracy. Last year Greece had approximately 950,000 pay-TV clients, which represents a 24% of penetration in the country, figures that are similar to those in other Southern states like Spain or Portugal, but considerably lower than the EU average. All things considered, pay-TV is still the second biggest window for film distribution in Greece, as acknowledged by Europa Distribution members: “With pay-TV we can still find a good deal, even for independent films, so we hope it stays like that for many years. The problem is free-TV” (Panagiotidis). While private channels are usually not interested in European and arthouse production, focusing mainly on commercial titles and TV formats, the only alternative for free-TV distribution was ERT (the Greek public channel). Most independent distributors used to work on a regular basis with the public TV, but due to “management decisions” ERT has virtually stopped movie sales. It is also important to mention that a couple of years ago Greece went through a huge controversy regarding the repartition of TV licences, leading to an auction by the Supreme Court and outraging many media groups. In any case, distributors conclude that the numbers for TV are too small to be accounted. In Souganidou’s words, “unless you make it theatrical there is no way you will recover your expenses through the other platforms, at least for the time being.”
Worrying numbers in piracy
While piracy is always mentioned as a major problem everywhere, Greece ranks above the average with some shocking numbers. According to the data provided by Feelgood Entertainment, the company has monitored almost 4 million illegal downloads per day just for films and series in Greece. Piracy has also played a big role in preventing more customers to join pay-TV, and contributed to the recent loss in subscribers. As published by Kathimerini, there is an estimated amount of between 80,000 and 100,000 piracy-enabling devices in Greek households, allowing users to watch pay-TV channels for free, which is leading to an annual loss of around 20 millions only for this market. “It is a huge amount of content being downloaded,” simply put by Souganidou. Luckily, after a lot of negotiations and constant pressure from distributors, this year the Greek Government finally approved the application of the “Italian model” to fight piracy in the country. Until now, anyone who wanted to take down content from an illegal site had to directly go to court. That meant that, according to the Greek regulation, it could take from 5 to 8 years to have a final resolution on the matter. What the new law entails is that instead of going to the court, there will be a committee appointed for these cases with the same legal authority. This way the owners of the pirated content will be able to make an application informing that in a specific site there is illegal content of their ownership, and after paying a fee this committee will have to make a decision. They will be obliged to take down the illegal site or to cut the access to it within a period of 60 days, and if the named site refused to do it they would be forced to pay a fine. “Hopefully there will be a lot of publicity which will make Greeks understand that this is illegal, that this is theft, but it has been 9 months and we are still expecting this new law to be practically implemented” (Souganidou).
“We just love cinema”
Despite their different approaches and the varied scale of their business, all of Europa Distribution members agreed on the main problem to be tackled in order to improve the situation of independent film distribution in Greece. First and foremost, to lower the number of films that are being released every year. “We need to select more carefully,” expresses Kechagia, whose dream scenario for the future would be one where they can always “find the space and the screens” to show their films to people that share the same passion for them.
Ioanna Panagiotidis also subscribes to this idea, considering that in the long term a reduction in the number of releases would be in everyone’s interest. “This way you have the time to choose better and work on each title as you are supposed to.” As for the reasons that still motivate them to fight for this business, the answer is also categorical: “We just love cinema. We like to go to festivals and watch films, and when we discover movies that we think are worth it, then we are very eager to come back and show them to people. We will keep fighting because we don’t want to see cinema gone. We won’t give up, and we don’t want people to give up” (Kechagia).
On a more pessimistic note, Zinos Panagiotidis admits that after almost 50 years in the business, and with all the changes experienced by the market, it is sometimes difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. “My job is something very personal, very special. I know that for some people it is just a business. They could be buying and selling anything, but my life is cinema. I can’t imagine stopping and doing something different.” On her side, Irini Souganidou remarks the importance of being ethical and creative, collaborating with the different players and becoming an essential part of the chain. “Our challenge is to keep our integrity and be financially stable in order to present our films to the Greek audiences,” while also pointing out a fundamental devotion for cinema. “This is a business where it wouldn’t make sense to be unless you really have a passion and love for film.”
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