Independent Distribs Are Caught In A Bind

Every Italian distributor in the industry will be at the screenings at Cannes, but ask if he’ll be buying new product and “I hope so,” is the most common reply.

Despite a slight boost in the number of tickets sold this past season, Italo distribs are increasingly surrounded by problems. With the exception of Penta, which pairs the combined might of the country’s largest producers Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori with tv baron Silvio Berlusconi, Italo distribs are finding it more and more difficult to find, acquire and release their product.

Too many films

“It’s getting harder and harder for an indie distrib to survive in this market,” said one longtime distributor.

Why? “First of all, there are too few theaters releasing too many films. The resulting logjam of product is a headache for the American majors as well, not just the indies,” explained BIM topper Valerio De Paolis.

Secondly, Penta has a very aggressive acquisitions strategy, buying more films and more so-called classic product. This strategy drives up prices – the tag for Italo rights to Almodovar’s next film has increased from $700,000 to $1.2 million in a matter of weeks.

Thirdly, tv networks are buying rights to fewer films each year and are interested only in the blockbusters from the majors, cutting out an important source of revenue for indie distribs. “This market has become like Michael Crichton’s book ‘Jurassic Park.’ An island full of dinosaurs, one devouring the other,” said BIM’s De Paolis.

Nonetheless, each of the country’s 10 or so main indie distributors will be hoping to find a hot new property at Cannes. With a slate of 80 films ready to go for next year, Penta Distribuzione may not seem to be in need of acquiring more product. But Claudio Tinari, the exec in charge of Penta’s international department, said he will be scouting for new titles for 1992.

“Any strong commercial film is attractive for us. But we’re also interested in smaller titles like, say, ‘Cafe Europa,'” said Tinari. BIM’s Valerio De Paolis will be looking for up to five new pics at Cannes, which will be released in Italy Columbia/Tri-Star through a new 10-pic per year deal between the two.

Other indies, like Academy, Titanus and Lucky Red, react to the more competitive market by getting involved in the production of films they release.

Academy toppers Manfredi and Vania Traxler, veteran artfilm distributors, are setting up a production banner called Academy European Production with several other like-minded Euro distribs.

“We intend to co-produce about two or three films per year, plus tv projects and videos. We’re not abandoning distribution by any means. But competition has gotten so tough here that it makes more sense to spend money producing a film for several territories than laying out a million dollars for a minimum guarantee for a film that may flop,” said Traxler.

The Traxlers have also signed a deal with Panarecord to release Academy product on homevideo. Titanus Distiibuzione foreign sales topper Sesto Cifola will be on hand at Cannes to acquire films for distribution, but he’ll also be selling two Titanus co-prods: Marco Ferreri’s “The House Of Smiles” and Daniele Luchetti’s “The Footman.”

Kermit Smith of Lucky Red will be looking for two or three more titles to round out the small distrib’s slate, plus trying to put together financing for a few film projects. “Independent distributors here are being forced to go into production or go out of business,” Smith observed. “And if that happens, the suppliers won’t have a lot of choice about who to sell their product to in a few years.”

Roberto Cimpanelli is one indie who had a good year – “Dances With Wolves” had grossed over $13 million by mid-April, and looked like it would continue its profitable run for several weeks.

While he doubted he would find another “Wolves” this year, he did note, “Indies have to work three or four times as hard as other distribs to find product. I may buy one film at Cannes, or I may end up with 10,” he said.

At Artisti Associati, buyer Sonia Graziani said she’ll be looking for “a few” films to round out the distrib’s slate, which includes titles like Geoff Murphy’s “Free Jack” and Ridley Scott’s “Christopher Columbus.”

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