Distribber Freezes Out Its Competish

Holding theatrical distribution contracts that read like a Who’s Who of Hollywood’s majors and indies, Sam Film has long banked its reputation on unapologetically serving up of some of the biggest and best that Hollywood can provide.

Disney was first inked in 1983, 20th Century Fox in 1985, Warner Bros, in 1986 and Morgan Creek in 1993. With titles like “The Lion King,” “Interview with a Vampire” and “Disclosure” peppering its release slate of some 70 pix a year, Sam Film claims an average 50% share of the market.

Nearest competitor Haskolabio claims a 25% share of the market, although the successes of “Schindler’s List,” “In the Name of the Father” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” could edge that share up when the figures for 1994 are finalized.

Sam Film shares UIP product with Haskolabio, but the two companies are not exactly distrib buddies. “Competition at markets like Cannes for nonexclusive independent product is heavy,” says Haskolabio managing director Fridbert Palsson, who handles Polygram and Capella fare, among others, and whose slate is usually split 50-50 between European and Yank movies. Palsson’s outlet is the five-screen, 1,700-seat University Cinema.

If competition between the two is heavy now, it’s going to get even tougher in the future. Sam Film plans to expand its distrib slate in a big way, says general manager Bjorn Arnason.

One of the major criticisms of Sam Film is its heavy skew toward big U.S. box office hits, with little attention paid to Icelandic or even European arthouse fare.

Anna Maria Karlsdottir of the Icelandic Film Fund is critical of the booking policies of local theater owners, saying 164 out of 203 pix released in Iceland in 1993 were U.S. productions. However, she at least credits Haskolabio with trying to bring in more “quality” fare.

Sam Film officials respond by saying they tried the arthouse route earlier, but without success. “American films are the most popular, so we’ve tended to show them the most,” explains Sam Film prexy Arni Samuelsson. “We tried to run an arthouse cinema for about 18 months and had to give up. There simply wasn’t enough interest. This is, after all, a business.”

Karlsdottir claims the equation is not that simple. “It’s not just a question of box office,” she says. “Hollywood films get far more coverage from the press than local Icelandic or even European product.

“Our cinema owners are doing very little to expose the younger generation to ‘quality films.’ The result is that they’re bringing up audiences who get their lines from Hollywood on what life’s all about.”

That may be about to change, as both Samuelsson and Arnason note a shift in the market toward “quality” fare. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Nordisk Filtri, now engaged in a fierce distrib war, also recently announced a major push to acquire more “quality films.”

“There’s a trend in Iceland away from the ‘Rambo’ kind of movie,” Arnason says. “It’s not that we’re against arthouse commercial possibilities. For example, ‘The Madness of King George’ is the kind of thing we could be interested in in the future.”

“You have to run arthouse product much longer (to make it worthwhile), but eventually you get a fair number of admissions. We could afford to, as we also handle a lot of commercial product,” continues Arnason.

Samuelsson agrees. “We noticed at the recent AFM that there’s an increasing number of people who want a choice. Films like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ are becoming real commercial hits. We’re thinking about trying to offer more of this type of product.”

A push by Sam Film into the arthouse arena may make Karlsdottir happy, but it also puts a smile on the face of Haskolabio’s Palsson.

“Four Weddings” was one of his big successes last year, along with international fare like “The Story of Qiu Ju,” “Little Buddha” and “Daens.”

The war between the two distribs may lead Sam Film to invade Haskolabio’s previously sacrosanct territory.

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