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VOD boosts Brit arthouse distrib

Curzon Artificial Eye succeeds with day-and-date strategy

LONDON — In the U.K., typically a tough market for foreign-language films, the $100,000 opening weekend for Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre” reps a boffo result for distrib Artificial Eye, and the Finnish auteur’s best-ever bow in Blighty.

But that figure tells only half the story. “Le Havre” was also the first title released simultaneously in theaters and on the company’s own VOD platform, Curzon on Demand, where the pic also posted the highest sales total for a single weekend since the service began a year ago.

Curzon Artificial Eye, the U.K.’s leading arthouse exhibitor and distributor, is the first significant European player to try the day-and-date VOD model, following the path forged by the likes of Magnolia and IFC in the U.S.

Curzon Artificial Eye chief exec Philip Knatchbull describes the move as a paradigm shift in the independent film business.

“We’re working toward a windowless market over the next five years, when most of our new releases will be on public and home platforms at the same time,” he says. “We mustn’t make the same mistakes as the music industry. We can get rid of piracy by simultaneous releasing.”

Meanwhile, the group is also beefing up its investment in content. A couple of years ago, it raised a fund that has acquired U.K. rights to 26 films, and enabled Artificial Eye, which traditionally specialized in foreign-lingo fare, to move into bigger prebuys of British and other English-language projects, such as “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “Melancholia” and “Wuthering Heights.”

Now the company is poised to announce a second, larger fund, with five out of the original seven investors returning for more. About 30% of the fund will be reserved for production, with Artificial Eye taking worldwide rights to projects.

Curzon on Demand launched April 6 with “Le Havre” and another 220 hand-picked titles from a dozen distributors (after a year of beta testing with 30 titles from the Artificial Eye library). The platform added another day-and-date theatrical release, “Blackthorn,” in its second week.

According to Knatchbull, launching a film at the same time in both windows effectively allows niche distribs to double their money.

Artificial Eye previously experimented with five simultaneous theatrical and VOD releases using satcaster BSkyB’s Sky Box Office service. Far from denting the box office, he says the cross-promotion boosted theatrical gross, and claims the distrib’s net return from both windows combined was effectively twice what a conventional theatrical release would have achieved (though that calculation doesn’t include Curzon’s own take as the exhibitor).

Certainly, the healthy opening for “Le Havre” supports Knatchbull’s assertion that making the film available simultaneously to home viewers doesn’t hurt cinema ticket sales. Unfortunately, the company’s reluctance to reveal hard VOD figures means its claims about digital returns are hard to verify.

The challenge for Curzon on Demand will be to carve out a viable niche as a boutique serving a cinephile audience with a carefully curated supply of films in a market dominated by giant online retailers such as Amazon, Netflix and Apple’s iTunes. Knatchbull says he never wants more than 300 titles on his platform.

“I’m hoping to stand out like a small beacon,” he says. “It’s a big world out there, and I’m sure we’ll be quickly overtaken by big companies, but I believe there’s room for us as a brand to grow in this way, with the home cinema and the public cinema connected together in a windowless environment.”

Knatchbull suggests that the nature of arthouse cinema means it is better suited to niche marketing. “We work a lot with auteur directors who wouldn’t take kindly to one homogenous approach to how films are consumed,” he says.

Knatchbull argues that including real cinemas in the mix also gives the company a key advantage over purely virtual players. “It’s a major point of difference. Of course we have our blog and our Facebook page, but that’s quite soulless. What’s great about physical venues is that you’re more connected to your community.”

Curzon owns London’s five flagship arthouses, and programs three other regional theaters. It’s looking to expand the chain of physical venues it operates in the U.K. and internationally, alongside the rollout of its Curzon on Demand service on a growing number of virtual platforms; the service launched this month as an app on 1.5 million Samsung smart TVs.

Knatchbull’s aim is to get the Curzon brand onto 15 digital platforms reaching 20 million U.K. homes, and to expand the Curzon arthouse chain from its current size of eight venues with 15 screens to 30 venues with 50 screens over the next three years. “These are the numbers where the distribution model can truly change,” he says.

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