SE Europe faces digital challenges

Local pics struggle to up market share

SARAJEVO — Digital distribution offers mixed blessings for indie filmmakers in South-East Europe, an industry panel discussion at the Sarajevo Film Festival heard Monday.

Steep costs for digital projection equipment, exhibition dominated by chains screening blockbusters, and tough TV and homevid markets make increasing share for local pics a challenging proposition, panelists attending the fest’s first regional forum on the state of the film biz in South-East Europe said.

In a region where market share for national films ranges from just 4.3% in Slovenia to 60% in Turkey, and that for European films between 8% in Turkey and 85% in Slovenia, digital distribution is often trumpeted as the panacea to local distributor woes.

It is not that simple, a range of experts from the region said during a round table discussion on encouraging distribution and circulation of regional films on the eve of the digital age.

Fierce competition to secure theatrical release for films in many of the territories — where even in the countries of the former Yugoslavia there is no single common language — means short runs for independent films and little opportunity to build crucial word of mouth.

“Films are rarely on release long enough. Without a theatrical release DVD release is pointless and television networks are all fighting serious competition and looking for ratings winners — which they won’t find from independent movies,” Sreten Zivojinovic, of Croatian distributors Cinemania said.

Even in the one territory where local fare has been hitting box office home runs — Turkey, independent operators face crippling costs to keep up with the competition.

Inci Demirkol, of Magic Lantern Cinema and president of Turkey’s Mass Media Research Foundation, cited net costs of $200,000 to install one 2K digital projector in one of her company’s cinemas.

With 4K now the industry digital standard in the 23 cinemas that have gone digital in Turkey, she wondered how long it would be before an expensive upgrade was needed.

“We did well out of ‘Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ but faced all sorts of additional costs — such as hiring a person to collect deposits for 3-D glasses and demands from Universal for a cut of the money we charged for the glasses even though they did not provide them,” Demirkol said.

Her remarks elicited a quip from Howard Kiedaisch, CEO of Arts Alliance Media, that he could have sourced a digital projector for half the price she paid, although he acknowledged that keeping up with technological innovation always carried costs as well as benefits.

Building market share for local films is not all doom and gloom, and need not necessarily rely on digitalization, other panelists noted.

Sevda Sishimanova, a board member of Bulgarian National Television, said that a management policy of screening local and European films in a primetime slot had attracted audiences as big as those for the blockbusters the state-run channels also airs.

“It was a management decision to create the primetime slot and a management decision to invest in co-productions of both Bulgarian and European films with a Bulgarian component,” she said.

The broadcaster, which has around a third of national market share, was consistently ranked the most trusted television outlet in the country, she added.

Stefan Kitanov, a Bulgarian producer and distributor who also heads the Sofia Film Festival, found a novel way to up local film attendance.

In a country with just 55 cinemas in 17 towns, he takes the films that are shown at his festival around the country, screening movies in a mobile cinema using DVD sources.

“There are towns where no one has seen a film at the cinema for more than a decade and a whole generation has grown up without cinema. People go to see the movies. I’m always thrilled when I see that,” Kitanov said.

The challenges faced by distributors suggested that industry figures in South-East Europe should speak with a common voice to lobby for public policies that help all aspects of the film industry, Nina Pece of Slovenian exhibitor Kinodvor said.

“Public money is available to help with filmmaking and digitalization. We should be agreeing a platform that encourages policies that target public money that benefits all levels of the cinema industry in the region,” she said.

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