CLUJ, Romania–When Lee Chang-dong’s mystery thriller “Burning” was released in Romania not too long ago, Tudor Giurgiu had the sense he had to catch the Cannes festival player before it was too late. “I felt this film was kind of meteoric, and it just disappeared,” he said.
The Romanian director and Transilvania Film Festival founder used the South Korean arthouse darling as an example of the challenges facing distributors in Central and Eastern Europe during a panel discussion Friday afternoon in Cluj, as part of the European Film Forum.
The day-long event, which was presented by the E.U.’s Creative Europe-Media Program, included a conversation with Giurgiu, Romanian producer Ada Solomon, and Warsaw-based sales agent New Europe Film Sales CEO Jan Naszewski. The session, entitled “New Trends in Regional Distribution,” was moderated by Erwin M. Schmidt, managing director of the German Producers Association.
Giurgiu cited the case of “Burning” while describing the new SVOD service, TIFF Unlimited, which launched this week in Cluj. Though subscription rates for streaming services are still low across Eastern and central Europe, VOD offers one pathway for arthouse films that typically land brief theatrical runs in the region’s dwindling number of independent cinemas.
TIFF Unlimited will host a carefully curated selection of films from Transilvania, as well as other world cinema offerings. The association with a festival that has distinguished itself for bold and provocative programming choices is a key selling point; Naszewski noted that establishing an identity for an SVOD service is no different than building a community around a beloved neighborhood cinema. “This is a brand that stands for quality films,” he said, pointing to similar initiatives by the likes of Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival. “These brands have become a key to reaching an audience.”
For distributors, thoughtful curation is one way to stand out from the crowd. “It’s the difference between Netflix and MUBI,” said Solomon. “You are curated in MUBI. You are in a boutique shop, where you have unique stuff, while in Netflix you are in a supermarket. You have everything, but you are lost in between the shelves.”
The glut of content on the streaming giant points to a larger problem facing consumers – as well as producers and distributors – today. “I think we are really facing a situation of crisis of over-production. We have to face it,” said Solomon, who in her role as a distributor likens the situation to a swimmer trying to keep her head above water. “How can I survive as a distributor with interesting titles, but with limited budgets, versus the budgets of the big players?”
One option suggested is to be nimble with innovative marketing campaigns. “You can really do cheap campaigns if you’re creative,” said Naszewski. “It’s not about the budget; it’s about being clever and thinking outside the box.”
To bolster that point, Solomon cited the example of her marketing campaign for Wim Wenders’ dance documentary “Pina,” which utilized local dance troupes and organized flash mobs to create buzz around the film. “Pina” went on to have a surprisingly strong theatrical run in Romania. But more importantly, Solomon stressed the need to develop a marketing campaign from the earliest stages of a film’s life. “Every single producer sees that the Americans are having marketing and distribution budgets that are equal if not above the production budgets,” she said. “We should learn from them.”
Such solutions, however, aren’t enough for the many films in the region that struggle to cross borders. “There are a certain number of great European films that are box-office hits in their country, but done with a strong artistic quality,” that nevertheless fail to sell to other territories, said Giurgiu. He pointed to “Clergy,” director Wojciech Smarzowski’s local dramedy about three clergymen, which was a domestic hit in Poland but deemed too commercial for many foreign festivals.
“Somewhere in our chain of decisions…there is a bug,” said Giurgiu. “There are good films which are not awarded in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and distributors will not [take the] risk with them because they do not have accolades. And these films will remain in their own territories.”
The Creative Europe-Media Program includes a sizeable budget to support the pan-European distribution of films from across the continent, but the panelists questioned how that money is distributed. “The support is created in my understanding in order to support films with small capacity of circulating…but in fact the ones that are able to get it are the English-language films, mainly,” said Solomon. “English, French, big budgets, that anyway will circulate. So I think it’s a vicious circle over there.”
She added: “I think this needs to have a rethinking of how to balance that, and how to help the one that really needs help and can create a European presence.”
The criticism drew a response from the European Commission’s Martin Dawson, who was seated in the audience. “We are trying to support co-ordinated, pan-European strategies,” he said. “The purpose of it is to support independent films: Independent films which are European, which can be of any language, but which have the potential to travel.”
He continued: “We do have the concern to reach wider audiences. There’s a risk otherwise of turning it around—that we choose films that cannot travel, because they need our help. We choose films that have potential, and that will make the most of our help…to travel even better.”
While Dawson cited internal efforts at the E.U.’s Media Program to respond to critics and ensure its fund are distributed equitably to the benefit of as many filmmakers as possible, Naszewski said there was a need to go further. “There is a big focus in Creative Europe at the moment on innovation. But I would say there would be no innovation without education,” he said. “There should be a lot of resources diverted to grassroots cinema education and cultural education, which is really lacking in a lot of countries. And that’s when growing audiences…will become part of an industry, and become the audience of the future.” That education, he insisted, has to include policy-makers, who across most of Europe fail to prioritize cultural spending.
Giurgiu seized on that point to describe his experiences at the helm of TIFF, whose outreach efforts go beyond filling more seats in the cinema. Often teenage volunteers will come to Giurgiu after several years at the festival, he said, with their own hopes of becoming screenwriters or directors. “It’s just a great proof for me that through education, you can really change people’s lives for good.”