MARRAKECH– Faced with a competitive theatrical landscape, plummeting TV sales and an only-nascent VOD market, key European distributors got together in Marrakech to debate new strategies.

More than a dozen independent distribs were on hand in Marrakech to participate in a two-day workshop organized by Christine Eloy, the managing director of Europa Distribution, and hosted for the first time during the festival.

Variety sat down with Eric Vincente from France’s Sophie Dulac Distribution, Kahloon Loke at the U.K.’s Pecadillo Pictures, and Laurent Dutoit, who works at Switzerland’s Agora Films. Also in hand: Kamran Sardar Khan from Germany’s Camino, Arsenal’s Harald Baur in Germany, Svend B. Jensen from Norway’s Arthaus and Beatrice Gulino from Italy’s Academy Two and Claudia Bedogni at Satine Films, also in Italy.

Distributors across the board agreed: the steep decline in TV sales continues to be one of the sector’s biggest handicaps, particularly in Germany.

“There are too many movies out there, and if without the support of TV channels and dedicated arthouse theaters (which have an impact on DVD sales, especially in Germany), we have nothing left to recoup our investment from,” Khan said.

Teuton TV channels are now only willing to buy foreign movies that have been successful at the box office regardless of their pedigree, Khan said, pointing to two of the rare foreign-language films that got scheduled on primetime in Germany this year: “Amour” and “Paulette,” which share nothing apart from the fact that both were big B.O. hits.

Baur concurred, adding that local TV channels are increasingly dedicating primetime slots to drama series, as well as game and talk shows. When they do show movies, it’s more often library reruns than new releases. These issues have led Camino, along with other distribs, to start producing local films in order to seek some alternative upside.

Another recurrent problem for independent distributors is access to screens in markets that are dominated by vertically-integrated groups.

In Norway, for instance, Jensen, who distributed Cannes standout – and now Golden Globe nominee – “Force Majeure,” said Svensk and Nordisk Films, the Scandinavian vertically-integrated giants, control most theaters in the country.  Nordisk, he said, owns all the theaters in Oslo. While the two exhibitors have to pick up third-party movies (which are not produced and/or distributed by either Svensk and Nordisk), the turnover rate of films in theaters is extremely high. Movies are often pulled after one week.

Jensen, who runs Arthaus, told Variety he was considering going into exhibition and launching theaters to ensure a better exposure for indie movies.

In Italy, distributors who are not part of the Circuito Cinema network are facing a similar problem to Arthaus in Norway, said Gulino.

While France remains Europe’s biggest market for arthouse and boasts the largest network of arthouse theaters, Eric Vincente, a Europa Distribution board member, said it was still challenging to keep movies in cinemas enough time to recoup P&A expenses.

Like other European distributors, Vincente said Sophie Dulac has been focusing on films that target niche audiences. German movies, for instance, are particularly popular in Gaul, as are movies catering to older moviegoers.

Recent German titles that performed well in France include Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt.” This year, out of the 12 movies that Sophie Dulac distributed in France, five of them were German, per Vincente.

Documentaries are also a viable niche for cautious and/or cash-strapped European distribs as they don’t require major MG’s and P&A investment, can have a decent run in theaters and sell fairly well to TV channels.

Gulino said Academy Two has been successful with documentaries such as Pascal Plisson’s “On The Way To School” because it targeted the educational niche and generated nearly 100,000 admissions from schools’ networks. Merely 15,000 to 20,000 admissions were garnered from other moviegoers.

Eloy said Europa Distribution is pushing for national film boards to give out subsidies for distributors in territories like Italy. Unlike in France, most Euro distribs aren’t eligible for public funding. The org is also lobbying to enforce acquisition and programming quotas of local and European movies on TV channels.

“We hope lawmakers will take steps for arthouse films and help us get TV channels on our side, said Khan.

He added, “Out arthouse film culture will disappear in the near future if the TV channels only buy movies who collect the most theatrical admissions like the US blockbusters.”

Digital distribution, notably straight-to-VOD and day-and-dating, isn’t yet a lucrative alternative to a theatrical roll-out, said the execs.

Day-and-dating theatrical/VOD is still prohibited or highly discouraged in most European territories and even in the U.K. where it is permitted, Locke argued it only works well for distributors who run theaters. “It’s nearly impossible to convince exhibitors to take movies that available on VOD,” said Locke.

The British exec also spoke about the difficulty of getting movies which are neither blockbusters nor tiny arthouse films into U.K. theaters.  Again, the crux of the battle is to have more independent theaters built.

As for straight-to-VOD, the distributors explained it can only benefit genre, cast-driven films and/or festival movies that have been well-reviewed or have earned enough buzz prior to their release. For other films with a more modest profile, skipping the theatrical roll-out can be a fatal error because the pics don’t get reviewed and end up having no visibility on digital platforms.

“Releasing a film in theaters, even on a small number of screens, is still essential for the commercial career of a movie,” said Locke.

Yet,  Bedogni from Italy’s Satine Films said distributors are increasingly cautious when planning their releases due to the fact that they have to pay expensive Virtual Print Fees for each copy they put out – no matter how the movie performs and how long it stays in theaters.

Bringing the discussion to a close, Dutoit, who co-chairs Europa Distribution, argued the future of European films’ distribution lies in the hands of a new generation of auteurs.

“In Europe, most of our best-known filmmakers are past 50 and audiences have aged with them; and with the exception of a few marquee names like Xavier Dolan (“Mommy”) – who’s actually French-Canadian — there hasn’t been a real takeover by young directors,” claimed Dutoit.