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Europe’s Film Industry War Room Debates COVID-19 Impact in Nyon (Kind Of)

Heino Deckert, Jérôme Paillard, Daniela Elstner
David Fisher/Katie Jones/Variety/MediaPunch/Shutterstock/Emilio Mayorga

Taking one big bull by the horns, the second online industry talk at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel debated Tuesday evening the impact of COVID-19 across pretty much the whole of the movie value chain.

At least five of the six panelists on the online round table, The Film Industry in Corona Times: Labs, Markets, Sales, Producers, were heads of institutions which already shape Europe’s industry. A sixth, German producer-sale agent Heino Decker, is positioned to have a highly informed sense of market demand. So, the take on key industry issues at the panel, moderated by Variety, were sometimes not just a matter of opinion but valuable pointers to its very future amid and after COVID-19. Following, 10 quick takeaways.

1. Cannes Film Market Online: Updates

Applauded by UniFrance managing director Daniela Elstner — “it’s very important to have something before the summer” – the June 22-26 Cannes Marché du Film will have “many more pitching sessions than we ever expected,” said Jérôme Paillard, its executive director. He revealed other details. Screenings will take place throughout the day based on the local clock. So, a 10 am screening in Tokyo will be available at 10 am in Paris, 10 am Los Angeles, and so on. Cannes Docs will be coordinated with Sunny Side of the Docs, France’s preeminent documentary market which runs the same week. The Film Market is also in talks with Annecy about an Annecy Goes to Cannes showcase. Such works-in-progress presentations will continue as screenings on a set schedule, imitating their on-site equivalents.

2. A Sales Hecatomb in Theatrical? 

“As a sales agent for fiction it’s a catastrophe at the moment. Distributors aren’t buying,” said Heino Deckert at Deckert Films, the sales agent on Oscar-nominated “Honeyland.” He did add that for documentary companies, “it’s a bit easier with broadcasters as customers as they are looking for projects, for films, because they know they will run out of product in the autumn.” Equally so for series. Deckert commented that he had been asked to deliver a five-part series in September but now received phone calls asking if he could bring it in two months earlier. “I think there are possibilities now and you just have to try them.”

3. But Cannes is Cannes 

Some buyers may be saving their powder, such as it is, for a special occasion, such as the Cannes Film Market Online, June 22-26. The Marché du Film conducted a survey a couple weeks back, answered by 400 distributors, of which 80% said they were willing to participate in a virtual market, and 65% were thinking they needed to acquire projects or completed films, said Paillard. “We hadn’t expected such a high number,” he added.

Cannes, however, is Cannes. Smaller markets may have bigger problems driving such sales traction.

4. The Film Festival Scenario Clarifies

“We don’t envision a physical festival with 2,500 people in one place,” said Marit van den Elshout, head of IFFR PRO, the industry umbrella of the Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival. Rotterdam is scheduled to run Jan. 27-Feb. 7 2021. “A digital aspect or factor will be woven in regardless,” she added.

“We have to look at our unique qualities and see how we can translate those smartly online,” she went on. “There could be a second wave [of COVID-19] in Autumn or Winter, so even if after summer things are more flexible, they might be stricter again for us in January. I think this is a reality for us in the coming years.”

COVID-19 is also accelerating festivals and executives down a path they were already treading, said Paillard.  “I think many companies now will think ‘do we really need to go to all these markets?’ An alternative online is something we’ll have to provide when we do have physical markets again.”

5. Eurimages: Second-Phase Fixes?

Germany’s FFA has postponed its latest subsidy round, raising an outcry in the industry, Deckert commented. In contrast, the key for the Council of Europe backed fund for COVID-19 has been to not stop or slow down the funding process, said Eurimages executive director Roberto Olla. Eurimages has taken the opportunity to modernize, moving decision-making online. Shoot halts and distribution roadblocks raised by theater closures are both covered by force majeure clauses in producer contracts. First installments due on the first day of a shoot have been paid, even if the shoot was interrupted. Requirements for movies to open theatrically in their countries of co-production have been waived with alternative distribution triggering a final payment, Olla added. Now, new considerations are on the table. At a recent meeting with Olla, the European Producers Club requested the timeframe for Eurimages support to be extended from one year to two, and for the fund to lower the minimum percentage of budget covered on eligible projects from 50%. “Many castings are not happening. Broadcasters won’t commit without casting. They want to know who is in the film. Without broadcasters you cannot reach 50% financing on larger projects,” Olla said. He will take both proposals to his board.

6. A Major Coronavirus Challenge: International Co-Production

Laurent Steiert, deputy head of cinema at Switzerland’s Federal Office of Culture, agreed with Olla. “The most important thing for us as a fund is for content production to continue somehow and quickly. The demand for content will not decrease and the main challenge is to keep up with deadlines.”

Switzerland moved smartly, announcing as early as March 20 a rescue package of SFr 280 million ($288 million) for the culture sector, made up of bank guarantees for companies and freelancers, grants, and indemnities for losses. Those measures cover two months. After that, the FOC will shape a new rescue package for up to six months, said Steiert. One of his major concerns going forward, he said, was international co-production for “younger producers who need the physical contacts, the context. If we cannot travel, it’s going to be hard. We must try to establish these connections.”

Olla agreed: “Crossing borders in the future is going to be more difficult. There is a huge question about insurance covering risks connected to second and third wave COVID. Many countries need co-productions to make films. Being too tough on the level of artistic and technical cooperation necessary would make projects impossible.” Softening those requirements may be another proposal he’ll take to the board.

7. COVID-19: A Recovery Timetable

“We’ll probably start to shoot again in studios, maybe in not such a long time,” said Deckert. Steiert agreed. Arthouse theaters must open before multiplexes whose big U.S. releases have been pushed back to November or next year. Some arthouses in Switzerland would like to open in June or July. Their core audience are more risk averse and cinema going down in the summer, however, he added. Outside shoots will have a harder time to start up, as international co-productions, he added.

8. Cannes Film Market: Two Challenges

“From June 22-27 stick on your door a paper saying: “I’m not here, I’m in Cannes,” Paillard joked. But the joke makes a serious point. One major challenge for online festivals to date is that they afford far larger access to an industry audience with attention span issues working at home with families in shared isolation. “I’m happy my kids are back in school in June,” said van den Elshout, adding, “The required level of contact requires a lot of time for people homeschooling and finding ways to make working from home productive.”

Executives will be focused on Cannes during that week, whether that will be from cock crow (or seagull shriek, being Cannes) to way past midnight is another matter. Also, companies look likely to bring major projects and productions onto the market at Cannes. In some cases, said Paillard, they just can’t wait. How to command attention for their titles and drum up buzz without the networking powerhouses of shared restaurants and parties is another question.

9. Alternative Distribution Currently Underwhelms in Europe 

According to Elstner, it’s easy, if not normal, for U.S. distribution deals to take in virtual cinema releases. But that is not the case in Europe.

“Cinema is coming back as the main, first step for a film into the public. Of course, all our platforms buy films and do great business, but what everyone is missing is the cinema experience. It’s worth emphasizing the importance of cinemas and how films are distributed after festivals is really important for the career of films.” Global distribution deals on documentaries are relatively rare, Deckert said. But Deckert Films is now busy putting films online and “seeing what comes out if it.” He added: “A year ago, I’d say that if I’m getting a good dinner out of it in a month, I’m happy. Now it’s a bit more but not money you can build a company from.”

10. COVID-19: A Silver Lining

One was this Visions du Réel panel itself, analyzing the downsides of COVID-19. In a normal year, it might be difficult for any festival outside the very biggest to bring together the heads of the world’s biggest film market, and Europe’s largest co-production fund and national export board.

Currently, Europe’s highest-profile festival, given its switch online, the Visions du Reel documentary festival achieved that.