With cameras halted, theaters shuttered and no festivals in sight, the coronavirus pandemic has sent European film distribution into free-fall, creating a domino effect that has impacted the entire ecosystem across the continent, from sales agents to exhibitors.

Although each market in Europe differs widely, most territorial distributors share the same concerns: where, how and when should their films be released? Unlike the U.S., where the industry was quick to embrace digital in the face of COVID-19, European distributors aren’t yet ready to let go of theatrical, even if that means shelving their films for a year.

“In the U.S. and Europe, the balance of power between exhibitors and distributors is completely different,” says François Clerc, a well-respected exhibitor-turned-distributor who worked for Gaumont and Studiocanal before launching his production and distribution banner, Apollo, in 2017.

 “In the U.S., [power] is clearly tilted in favor of studios, whereas in Europe, the power is in both camps,” says Clerc. Insiders say that, if anything, exhibitors have greater lobbying power in Europe, especially in France. 

Theaters have been closed since March in most nations and are expected to reopen at some point in July — a brutal reality that puts at least four months’ worth of film releases in limbo. In France, the biggest theatrical market for European admissions, the shutdown of cinemas will affect roughly 200 films, according to Eric Marti, general manager at Comscore France. 

“Distribution outfits that have a fairly low overhead will be fine with the rescue measures put in place by the government for a duration of six months, but the medium-size companies with heftier structures that require [consistent] box office success will need more help to cope with this situation,” Marti says.

Europa Distribution, an organization of 115 leading indie banners across 30 countries in Europe, has been lobbying to get immediate governmental aid to cover losses on films, gain access to bank loans and maintain full-time, part-time and freelance employment, “including support for furloughs [covering] 70% to 80% of salaries,” says managing director Christine Eloy.

Many vulnerable distributors in markets such as Italy, France and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic, aren’t willing to release their films the moment theaters reopen for fear that not enough moviegoers will turn out, and those who do brave the experience will be drawn only to studio blockbusters such as “Wonder Woman: 1984.”

“My goal isn’t to break even by selling to a TV channel or a platform. I’d rather take the risk of losing money and show them in cinemas.”
Eric Lagesse, Pyramide Distribution

“Beginning July 1, Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal will be releasing 33 films over the following 26 weeks in France, and exhibitors will be very much in demand of these blockbusters to drive admissions and jump-start their businesses,” says Clerc, who hopes that chances of finding room for his French releases in art-house venues will improve later in the year.

Among the rare distributors preparing to venture first into the trenches are companies like France’s Memento Films Distribution, which splurged on P&A to release the Juliette Binoche-fronted “How to Be a Good Wife” and didn’t even get a full week in cinemas before they were shut down. Also raring to start back up are distributors who are exhibitors, too, like A Contracorriente in Spain and Pathé, which operates France’s largest cinema circuit. 

“We’re not going to shoot down the branch we’re sitting on by postponing all our movies,” says Ardavan Safaee, president of Pathé, who adds that the company’s main concern right now is to be able to finish the four film shoots it had to stop in March because of the lockdown.

However, a raft of European distributors has pushed back releases to the fourth quarter of 2020 or early next year, risking going up against a tsunami of postponed and new releases from U.S. studios such as Sony and Paramount. 

Even in Germany, distributors are aiming for a year-end restart. Ala­mode, a prominent art-house distribution banner that recently handled “Les Misérables,” has three recent films that have to be rescheduled and three new pictures that were set to bow in the fall. Alamode co-CEO Tobias Lehmann is now exploring a 2021 release for these films.

“When theaters reopen, there [could] be restrictions of 50 people per screen, so producers prefer to wait until everything goes back to normal,” says Lehmann. “We initially thought this fall would [work], but if there aren’t any festivals, there’s no real incentive.”   

Indeed, because the 2020 iterations of the fall festivals where indie films usually get launched are now in jeopardy, some art-house distributors handling prestige pics are rethinking their release strategies. 

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“Pinocchio,” starring Roberto Benigni, will stream on Amazon Prime in France; “How to Be a Good Wife” with Juliette Binoche front and center, is holding out for a theatrical release; “There Is No Evil,” featuring Baran Rasoulof and Ehsan Mirhosseini, doesn’t yet have a platform. Pinocchio: Greta de Lazzaris/01 Distribution; How To Be a Good Wife: Carole Bethuel/Memento Films; There Is No Evil: Kino Lorber

Eric Lagesse, president of Pyramide Distribution, has 12 films in the pipeline for this year’s festivals, but is considering holding certain titles for next year’s Berlin or Cannes, rather than having them play in virtual fests this year. While selection laurels might help to promote some movies, “neither the labels nor the virtual festivals will match the experience of being at a big festival, where you have the [atmosphere of] the press and buyers,” says Lagesse. 

The Pyramide exec, who’s navigating seven movies that have already opened at festivals and need to be released, including Mohammed Rasoulof’s Golden Bear winner “There Is No Evil,” says he hasn’t yet considered going straight to TV or VOD. 

“I bought these films for people to discover them on the big screen,” says Lagesse. “My goal isn’t to break even by selling to a TV channel or a platform. I’d rather take the risk of losing money and show them in cinemas.” He adds that a typical year for a distributor handling 15 films is to have five movies that bomb, five that break even and five that make money to cover for the others. 

Most European distributors are also hesitant to go straight to VOD, even if they’ve been allowed to do so during the pandemic by film orgs. A distributor’s biggest fear is to see its movies lost in a sea of content online, destroying the value of these titles in secondary markets after a single round on pay VOD. 

“Unless they’re dealing with a film that had limited theatrical potential to begin with, distributors prefer to release their movies in cinemas, because they know that the only upside they can ever get is from theatrical,” says Christophe Vidal, director at financier Natixis Coficiné. 

Ultimately, the most lucrative alternative to theatrical right now is a sale to a subscription-based platform like Amazon or Netflix, which will buy rights to a movie that was financed to play in theaters and handsomely compensate the partners involved. 

Amazon Prime Video recently scooped up two movies that were scheduled for theatrical release: “Ballsy Girl,” a comedy with Valérie Lemercier from UGC/TF1 Studios that will roll out in the streamer’s 200 territories, and Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio” from Le Pacte, which will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime in France. 

Le Pacte founder Jean Labadie says he sold “Pinocchio” to the streamer due to the uncertainty around theaters reopening and for a cash injection that could cover the €700,000 ($761,000) in P&A for its canceled March release. 

What’s clear for the foreseeable future is that the majority of distributors in Europe won’t be buying movies before the end of the year, key sales agents will delay the launch of their packages until early 2021 and a handful of titles will score splashy SVOD deals in the interim.

“Time has frozen,” says Stefano Massenzi, head of acquisitions and business affairs at Lucky Red. “There will be a large gap for everyone, and it will take time for new product to be available. But hopefully, [after] that happens, we’ll all have regained our appetite.”