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Locarno SwissBiz panel, a round-table featuring five local industry professionals that takes an often critical and always self aware look at the state of affairs in Switzerland’s film industry, was always going to be a bit different this year. But, while the COVID-19 situation was a key talking point, it served primarily to highlight existing issues facing distributors and exhibitors.

Much of the discussion was focused on what issues venues have and continue to deal with, and different ways to get content in front of the mainstream public, particularly as audience viewing habits have evolved in lockdown, perhaps permanently, trending toward streaming. It was crucial to those participating that a new ecosystem, beneficial to both traditional and new modes of distribution, be created and nurtured.

The day’s speakers were Joel Fioroni at Lux, an art-house exhibitor; Andreas Furler, founder and managing director of Zurich-based streaming platform Cinefile; Karin Koch, producer at Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion; Jela Škerlak, head of exhibition and diversity, and Eurimages representative, Federal Office of Culture; and Thierry Spicher, a distributor at Outside the Box. Cinébulletin’s Pascaline Sordet moderated.

Below are five takeaways from the panel.

FROM BAD TO WORSE

While most of the gloom and doom talk centered on COVID-19 and its reverberating effects on the exhibition industry, Koch was quick to point out that many problems facing Swiss cinemas are not new.

“The problems had begun well before corona. Already we were having problems filling theaters with small, quality arthouse films and documentaries,” she pointed out. “With most of them we had full theaters at the film premiere, but after the premiere, the audiences disappeared.”

“There are many causes,” Spicher added. “There are perhaps too many festivals, too many offers. Cinema has become too expensive and there are alternative cultural offerings.”

He was not entirely passing the buck, however, and looked at mistakes being made on the distribution side as well. “Perhaps distributors are misguided in marketing. We continue to have old habits where we pay thousands of francs putting pages in newspapers that don’t make sense because the editors have long ago decided that culture is no longer worth covering.”

NECESSARY ADAPTATION

“We must change our exploitation strategy, adjust it. Corona intensified the situation massively. As bitter as that is, sometimes there needs to be an external crisis to force us to rethink existing systems,” said Koch.

One job facing Swiss exhibitors is getting those lost audiences back. “And we can only do that if the cinema is no longer seen as the exclusive venue. It is the most beautiful venue and I don’t ever want to miss it,” she said, but added that it was time the industry also expanded film distribution to more digital platforms. “We have to bring our films to where the people are. We know that, we are working on it and there is the opportunity.”

Spicher agreed. “I think there is a way of consuming that can be complementary to the traditional means which can be put in place, so that when the movies come back to theaters the people will go back as well.”

“Films must be bought first by the cinemas,” he proposed. “We must let the cinemas program and decide with their distributors the conditions of this programming. Films which work for digital are those which have done well in theaters. The room and the media coverage that comes with it give legitimacy, visibility.”

VIEWING HABITS CHANGED FOR GOOD?

Koch pointed out that exacerbating the problem of dwindling box office sales is the fact that the film sector had, in recent years, failed to take into account the changing viewing habits of its audiences.

“We allowed ourselves to lose young people, we allowed ourselves to lose the middle-aged sector and now the silver-aged viewers, who were still coming to the cinemas, are gone and they are not the ones that immediately go onto the internet.”

Interestingly though, it was pointed out that corona has shown that people once assumed averse to the experience or learning new technology are relatively quick to adapt and to enjoy theatrical films on streaming platforms, like Myfilm, Filmingo and Cinefile.

SILVER LINING FOR STREAMERS

Furler reluctantly recognized that lockdown has been good for business.

“This crisis has given us a huge boost,” he said. “We are still very young; we have only been around for two years. With the beginning of the lockdown, from March till now, our users have increased fivefold, sixfold, at least. The films, the rentals have multiplied in equal measure, even a bit more.”

“It was interesting to see that films that had already had a substantial exploitation, that were well known, continued to perform well, but there were a few exceptions, such as ‘Mare’ and ‘Cittadini del Mondo,’ which had just started in the cinemas or weren’t even out yet but which we acquired, along with other platforms, and they were definitely the top hits.”

Not suggesting that streaming release for films should replace theatrical, he emphasized the importance of a media chronology, where streaming would come in later, but part of a larger distribution plan rather than an afterthought where films can get lost in the current of content.

AVOIDING GRIDLOCK

According to Fioroni, one problem that local films will probably face at Swiss theaters is the probable logjam of films likely to come out at the same time once theatrical distribution becomes more common again.

“The problem arises especially when distributors choose releases during the hottest times of the year – Christmas, the Oscar period with a lot of very strong films,” he explained. “The audience has changed a lot. If there is too much to choose from, they usually play it safe, and do not choose Swiss cinema.”

He called for bravery when scheduling film releases, predicting a payoff for those that debut during off-peak times where competition is softer.

“I believe that Swiss cinema will find less competition and strong promotion with good distribution planning,” he claimed.

Owen Thompson and Ed Meza contributed to this article.