In the eight-plus months since the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Europe, the continent’s film industry has been in the midst of what has often felt like an unprecedented crisis. But for many arthouse distributors, the pandemic has simply accelerated changes that were already sweeping through the cinema business.
“The problems haven’t really changed,” said Huub Roelvink, founder and managing director of Dutch distributor Cherry Pickers, at Rome’s MIA market on Saturday. “They’ve just become more urgent.”
Roelvink was speaking alongside a panel of leading European executives as they discussed how arthouse distributors across the continent are responding to a time of widespread uncertainty.
Also appearing were Margherita Chiti, general manager and head of acquisitions and sales at Italy’s Teodora Film; Oscar Eriksson, head of acquisitions at Sweden’s Folkets Bio; and Ira Von Gienanth, CEO and acquisition manager for Germany’s ProKino. The panel, presented in collaboration with Europa Distribution, was moderated by Michael Gubbins, partner at London-based film consultancy outfit SampoMedia.
At a time when streaming platforms and box-office revenues dependent on Hollywood tentpoles have already upended the business, Chiti said “the virus situation has simply [exacerbated] something that was already there concerning arthouse distribution.” She added: “We are simply adapting to a process that was already in action, and it’s now going faster.”
Shuttered by nationwide lockdowns, then forced to adapt to social-distancing measures, exhibitors have been reeling. Pre-pandemic, said Chiti, theatrical accounted for roughly 50-60% of Teodora’s revenues; now, that number has been halved. “Normally, theatrical would be 70% of my income,” said Roelvink. “Now, it’s basically subsistence level.”
In Germany, where rigorous social-distancing rules have capped theater capacity at 20-30%, “every independent distributor has one film that works quite well,” said von Gienanth. “However, what I can see with the competition [is that] they’ve doubled and tripled the number of locations. So right now, you see an arthouse film on 300 screens, which is quite a lot.” She added: “There are lots of films that are not even doing 20,000 admissions right now.”
Government support has been introduced across Europe to varying degrees. Chiti noted that state support from the Italian government was given to exhibitors in earlier stages of the pandemic, while a tax credit for distributors is only now set to be introduced—and only for local films.
The Netherlands Film Fund was quick to bolster locally produced content, but Roelvink said that competing interests—from multiplex chains to arthouse cinemas to independent distributors—have made it difficult to lobby the government with a unified, industry-wide front. “On a national level, it’s been very hard for us to get across as a collective,” he said. “It’s always very hard to find one voice.”
A different type of discord has emerged in Germany, where von Gienanth said that “the [coronavirus] regulations are changing from region to region.” Even within regions, she noted, social-distancing rules can vary when authorities identify COVID-19 hotspots. “It’s difficult for exhibitors, it’s difficult for the audiences, because nobody really knows.”
Eriksson said that the Swedish industry is “lucky enough [to] have a support system,” crediting the Swedish Film Institute for its swift intervention in the early days of the pandemic. “But that support has to go much deeper and much further,” he added, “and really push for the importance of what we do.”
The natural response from many in the industry has been to tighten belts and cut corners wherever possible. “We are working on P&A reduction drastically, and increasing the work of curation with press,” said Chiti. “We try to create a little small event around the film, some kind of warmth around the film.”
“We always try to be very economical about our spending,” said Roelvink. “So often you fail, but you still keep trying. The amount of successes is always smaller than the amount of failures. So you have to limit your losses when you fail. That’s why you have to be economical, otherwise you won’t survive.”
The rise of streaming platforms was a disruptive force long before the pandemic upended the movie business, but the industry has still struggled to find a way for cinemas and VOD platforms to coexist in a way that they complement each other’s offerings.
Roelvink said that VOD was only a “minor” part of his company’s business model, pointing to the example of a Cherry Pickers film that was released in Dutch theaters earlier this year on the day that a nationwide lockdown was introduced. “The amount of money that we made online was nothing compared to what it was supposed to be,” he said, adding that VOD “can never make up for the loss of theatrical.”
“[VOD] won’t bring the same revenue, of course, as a cinematic release. That won’t be possible,” said Eriksson. “But it’s giving us a possibility to work with these titles that otherwise we would have to turn down.”
He continued: “I think it’s good for the environment, and what is actually being screened, and the diversity of what’s going to be screened in the cinemas. I see some kind of hope there. But revenue-wise, no.”
Exhibitors are nevertheless responding to what they perceive as an existential threat, prompting many to grow more risk-averse in their releases. “I think they’re quite frantic at the moment,” said Roelvink. “I don’t feel a lot of solidarity from the exhibitors, to be honest, which I don’t expect. They’re in a tough situation as well. They’re frantically looking for successes.”
Distributors are equally determined to release films that will strike a chord, even though competition is tougher than ever before. “We’re stubborn. We keep on releasing our films,” said Eriksson. “We can have four-to-five releases a week of arthouse films in the same number of cinemas, but with fewer numbers of people who can see the films. This is not going to work…in the long run. We have to adapt what we do, in a way, from what we’re doing now.”
“We are in a dangerous moment, especially from the cultural point of view,” said Chiti, stressing the need for producers, distributors, and exhibitors to rally together.
She cited the example of “The Macaluso Sisters,” the drama from writer-director Emma Dante that screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival this year. Teodora released the film in Italy only after a long dialogue with the film’s producers, getting involved at the script stage.
“It was a successful process because all the elements were in this together, and the process involved all of them,” she said. “It’s a key element, because sometimes we are involved at a very late stage, and we cannot bring the expertise we have.” She added: “Clearly, we can try to be in this together.”
Pictured, from left to right: Huub Roelvink, founder and managing director, Cherry Pickers; Margherita Chiti, general manager and head of acquisitions and sales, Teodora Film; Ira Von Gienanth, CEO and acquisition manager, ProKino; Oscar Eriksson, head of acquisitions, Folkets Bio.