Following its European tour across countries such as Greece or Switzerland, Europa Distribution now goes east in order to address the situation of independent film distribution in a particular set of countries: Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. Due to a severe lack of screens, a limited window market and the ever-present threat of piracy, independent distributors in the region have to think “outside of the box” and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Events and special screenings have become the predominant strategy, while some growth trends offer a light at the end of the tunnel. But is this enough?
No market for big risks
Although the shortage of screens (particularly those willing to show arthouse titles) is a common concern for independent distributors in Europe, the situation is particularly alarming in the eastern countries. According to the Romanian Film Center, Romania holds the record for the country with the least amount of screens per capita in the EU. Despite being one of the largest countries in the area, with a population of over 19 million inhabitants, the number of cinemas went down to 90 in 2017, with a total of 386 screens. According to Ștefan Bradea, one of the managing directors of Bad Unicorn, this problem can be traced back a couple of decades: “Ever since the Communist regime collapsed in Romania, there has been a tendency towards TV and free entertainment and that really deconstructed the cinema going culture and habits. This was also accelerated by the tendency of destroying the arthouse or single screen cinemas across the country”. The state-owned network operating in Romania went almost bankrupt after the 90s, and a lot the venues were converted into non-cinema related businesses, such as discos, shops or even bingo halls. “Most of the local cinemas fell into disarray and stopped being used, so now there are very few cinemas in Romania, and even less we can count on to actually screen arthouse titles”, adds Oana Furdea, distribution manager at Transilvania Film, a company that has been operating for 12 years in collaboration with the Transilvania International Film Festival.
The situation does not look more promising in the neighbouring countries. Mira Staleva, Executive Director of ArtFest and the Sofia Film Festival, explains that “Bulgaria is a tiny market for distribution”, with most of the limited screens concentrated in the capital. “There are a handful of cinemas which are screening arthouse titles in Sofia, and out of the capital you have 2 or 3, not more”. According to the data provided by the Bulgarian National Film Center, the cinema theatres in the country totalled 56 in early 2018. Because of this, Staleva emphasizes the importance of being selective when buying films, focusing on arthouse titles – preferably awarded at major festivals – as well as upcoming directors, but making sure these can attract a wide audience. “Everything is handpicked and designed according to the limited audience that we have. We cannot take big risks”.
As for Hungary, the landscape appears to be a bit more optimistic. “In Budapest we can’t really complain because there is a nice arthouse cinema network”, says Mozinet’s Managing Director Gabor Boszormenyi. However, he also acknowledges the need to work both with arthouse cinemas and multiplexes in order to subsist. “We have a line-up that consists mainly of films that have an interesting festival life as well as a high artistic value, but at the same time these have to be able to reach a normal level of admissions at the Hungarian box office”. Mozinet started distributing movies in 2006, and some of the titles they released over the years include Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin), Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) and Capernaum (Nadine Labaki), as well as some big national titles like Son of Saul (László Nemes). Even though the Hungarian market used to be extremely concentrated in the past, with the vast majority of the theatres operating in the capital, Boszormenyi points out a positive trend: “Over the last few years the arthouse cinemas in the countryside grew a little bit. Now they are more professional and have much better results. A few years ago, with some movies, up to 80% of our revenue would come from Budapest, but now it is slowly changing”. Nevertheless, he also clarifies that the access to cinemas is still a problem for most of the population in Hungary. “Sometimes even big cities don’t have an arthouse cinema. In some cases, they don’t even have a multiplex. We made some research a few years ago, and it came out that only 30% of Hungarians has access to cinemas where they live. That means that the other 70% has to travel to another city if they want to watch a movie in the theatre”.
It’s all about experimenting
In addition to the lack of screens, independent distributors in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania have very limited options when it comes to alternative windows for distribution. With undeveloped VOD markets, TV channels only buying very occasionally and a dying DVD window, distributors have to come up with new ideas in order to promote their films, which in most cases means organizing events. “The market has changed. It’s not the 90s anymore, when people in Bulgaria were still queuing for the cinema. We have to find new ways to attract the younger generations” (Staleva). Apart from their work at the Sofia Film Festival, which proved a really strong asset in terms of promotion and PR, ArtFest is also developing parallel activities such as travelling cinemas and programs for students. At the same time, Staleva stresses the importance of designing specific campaigns for every film based on their themes and particularities, trying to come up with new ways to engage with the audience: “when we were promoting Like Crazy (Paolo Virzì, 2016) a couple of years ago we organized events with Italian ice cream and Campari spritz”. The current situation pushes distributors to go out of their comfort zones, looking for new incentives in less traditional ways. “We are experimenting with every release” (Staleva).
ED members in Romania are dealing with the same landscape, trying to uphold new initiatives such as local video-clubs and special events outside the big cities, organized by local people that want to create these opportunities in their hometowns. “There are some sprouts, some small projects that we happily support”, says Bradea, convinced that by sustaining this kind of initiatives distributors are actually leaving a footprint that can help grow an audience for arthouse films. “If things get better for them, they will also get better for us”. When it comes to the percentage for each window, the case of Transilvania Films is especially remarkable. According to Furdea, theatrical screenings represent 50% of their income, while festivals and events add up to 40% (with the other 10% coming from VOD). “We are trying to come up with all sorts of screenings and special events for our releases. If we don’t do that some of our films wouldn’t even make it through the first week in the multiplexes”. Once again, working in close collaboration with a big festival such as TIFF means a great deal in terms of visibility. Apart from the main festival at Cluj-Napoca, TIFF has also developed local editions in other cities (Alba Iuilia, Bucarest…), but their most ambitious project has been TIFF Unlimited: a VOD platform launched this summer in connection with Transilvania Film, which has been widely celebrated by fellow distributors and competitors in the country. Unfortunately, Hungarian distributors cannot even count on big film festivals to promote their films. That is why Mozinet decided to launch the Mozinet Film Days, which this year celebrated its 9th edition. “It is an exhibition platform offering simultaneous screenings in 15 different cities, with Q&As and special events”, explains Boszormeny, who also subscribes to the idea of events becoming a great resource for marketing their films.
With great Internet comes great piracy
Romania is well known internationally for its Internet access and bandwidth, being repeatedly ranked among the top 5 countries with the fastest Internet speed in the world. This, combined with a lack of effective regulation in fighting piracy, results on a very difficult landscape for distributors. “It is a bigger problem than in other places, definitely worse than in most Western countries” (Bradea). Because of this, it is crucial for Romanian distributors to negotiate with producers and right holders in order to release their films as soon as possible. “The second a title hits any VOD platform in the world it will be picked up by pirates and made available everywhere. We try to be as close as possible to the big releases of the film, so we are not ‘too late for the party’. Otherwise piracy will eat your audience right away”. However, at Transilvania Films they still consider the situation to be better than it used to, mostly thanks to the new VOD and SVOD platforms that are currently available. “Now, whenever we are searching for our films online, we see them in fewer illegal places” (Furdea).
In Bulgaria “it is a national sport”, says Staleva, explaining that major titles are suffering the most. In her opinion, the constant threat of piracy is another reason why distributors have to be much more productive in terms of ideas, working closely with exhibitors to organize events. “We have to make people want to go to the cinemas and watch the films there. We must show them that there is something else”. But foremost, ArtFest’s director underlines the importance of making these films available for as many people as possible. “If the audience can’t see them in theatres, VOD platforms or TV, what are they going to do? Watch them illegally”. As for Hungary, the effects of piracy don’t seem to be particularly distressing compared to other European countries. According to Mozinet’s manager, it is always about the particularities of the film and its environment. “For some movies we know that they are going to be pirated by the time the hit the cinemas, but we still wait for the release”, claims Boszormeny, while pointing out a particular case they faced in the past: “Six years ago we bought Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012). The film was released in the US in summer, but we hoped it was going to get Oscar nominations, so we waited for the announcement. Of course it was very risky, but we managed to make 10 thousand admissions, which nobody really expected”.
Growing interest in local productions
Another common trait shared by some of these countries is the tendency towards a greater appreciation of national productions. Only a few years ago, all the films at the top of the Hungarian box office were Hollywood blockbusters, but the situation has drastically changed due to two major reasons: the activities of the National Film Fund, which has increased its budget for the production and promotion of Hungarian films, and the huge impact of recent national titles such as Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015), distributed by Mozinet. Neme’s directorial debut was a real game-changer, reaching the impressive number of 270.000 admissions. “It was something unbelievable”, admits Boszormeny, “even my competitors were calling me, because nobody expected an arthouse film like this to have such results”. But the impact of the film went way beyond its commercial success, helping to gradually change the perception of the audience about Hungarian films. “And then there was the press. Ten years ago the Hungarian press was very sceptical, to say the least, about national movies. But then Son of Saul and some other movies made them change their mind. Now when we are working on the campaign for a Hungarian movie it is much easier to get some journalists behind the film. 10-15 years ago they wouldn’t care about something like that. So that was a big change” (Boszormeny). Nowadays it is not strange to see Hungarian movies having a couple hundred thousand admissions, with one or two titles making the top 10 every year. In 2017, Kincsem by Gábor Herendi broke all domestic records with over 370.000 tickets sold. However, most of the highest grossing films are still US blockbusters, with European productions holding a very small share of the market.
National titles are also enjoying great popularity in Romania, where the total number of admissions for domestic releases increased by 49% in 2018, with over 400,000 tickets sold (which translated in roughly €1.5 million). Last year the biggest national release was Moromete Family: On the Edge of Time (Morometii 2, Stere Gulea, 2018), which at the time became the most successful Romanian movie since 2002. However, Cristina Jacob’s teen comedy Oh, Ramona! (2019), released earlier this year, took its place as box office champion becoming the first Romanian production grossing over one million dollars. But what about arthouse national titles? According to ED members in the country, the arthouse segment has also developed a lot in Romania over the last few years, especially with the Romanian New Wave. “The industry is growing, so we are taking on more titles and it’s becoming much more diverse”, says Furdea. In her opinion, Romanian films managed to find a balance that turned out to be very attractive for the public, which used to be quite reluctant to see national titles. “The films that are being made right now have a bit of a commercial edge to them, whereas before it used to be either very commercial or strictly arthouse, and now there is a crossover section”. Because of this, recent movies such as Monsters (Marius Olteanu, 2019), or La Gomera (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2019) managed to draw a significant amount of people to the theatres. “The fact that we’ve started to benefit from coproductions and the notion that we are part of the greater European industry has helped people change the way they see national films. They are starting to grow in popularity” (Furdea).
As for Bulgaria, it is still very rare to find domestic titles that can really compete with Hollywood productions. The last example can be found in 2017 with Victor Bojinov’s Heights/The Liberators. The film had an impressive opening weekend in theatres, reaching 25,000 admissions over three days and topping the box office, but it remains an extremely unusual case. Likewise, arthouse productions and European titles also struggle to attract people in Bulgaria, even if they had a successful festival run. “The fact that a film won awards at festivals doesn’t mean a lot to Bulgarian audiences. This is not really the strongest asset when it comes to the marketing of these films in our country”, as stated by Staleva, who also believes this issue needs to be addressed from the creative side: “the market really needs more lighter and life-affirming films. There is already too much darkness in the news, so the audience is not motivated to face the same things when they go to the cinema. We have to think about what the people want, what the audience needs”.
What’s the dream?
Despite all the difficulties and the challenges they face, there is something that all distributors interviewed in these territories cherish about their work, and that is being able to devote themselves to the their titles. “Since we launched the company we have allowed ourselves the luxury of working only with projects we believe in. We take our time to choose the titles we really feel attached to, finding the right partners and designing the best tailored campaign for each film”, says Bradea, while underlining their commitment to the public and the importance of creating a mutual trust between distributors and their audience. For Gabor Boszormenyi, this is also one of the reasons that makes the job still enjoyable in the face of adversity. In his own words, “the good thing about arthouse distribution is that every movie is a new project and you have to come up with new ideas. The budget is always tight so you have to be creative. It’s really exciting”.
Regarding the aspects to be improved, they all agree that a dream scenario would necessarily mean more cinema theatres in their countries, or at least a network of alternative screening rooms that would allow distributors to bring their films closer to the citizens (specially in smaller towns). For Staleva, it is also crucial to have more flexible sales agents that understand the singularities of these small markets: “a new scheme has to come”. On a general note, ED members in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria remain optimistic about the future. Even though these are three very distinctive countries, it is still fairly easy to find common grounds, shared concerns and even parallel trends that unite professionals working in the sector. And also similar motivations. As expressed by Furdea, “above all is the love for cinema”.
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