European Distribution: Focus on Belgium

 by Isabella Weber

While the debate on the “Digital Single Market” is still a hot topic of discussion for the whole European Film Industry, Europa Distribution continues its internal survey to explore the current situation of Film Distribution in each European country.

Belgium. A split territory surrounded by bigger markets

At first sight the Belgium film market presents the same overview as most of European markets with a significant predominance of American films over everything else. The figures from the last trimester of 2014 show the USA productions leading the Box Office with 72% incomes, leaving to European films the 26% and the Belgian ones at 5% (source: ISSUU’s Bulletin du Cinema). While these figures connect Belgium to many other EU countries, its status of split territory at a political, linguistic, cultural and administrative level, makes Belgium a unique case in the European distribution landscape. Outside of Brussels, where Flemish and French-speaking Belgians co-habit, the rest of the country is divided between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking cities and communities. Even a small German-speaking community can be counted within the Belgian territory.

Needless to say, this impacts the film distribution enormously. Some small companies only work with one part of the country, not being able to distribute their films to the other side.  “We are a francophone company and we can’t distribute anything in the Flanders: everything is too different” (Adeline Margueron – Le Parc Distribution).

This however does not represent the majority of the cases. Many Belgian distributors are in fact BENELUX acquisition companies that not only distribute their films in the whole Belgian territory but also manage directly the distribution of the films they buy in the Luxembourg. Given its small size, the rights for Luxembourg are mainly bought by Belgian companies, or German companies. As for the Netherlands, which will be the topic of our next National focus, they constitute a completely separate market and the Belgian companies that do acquisition for the BENELUX territory have separate offices dealing with Dutch releases which respect their own calendar and consequent windows.

Maybe it is no surprise that it is the French release calendar, more than the Dutch one, that Belgian distribution tends to follow quite closely. “As such a large amount of our films are francophone we need to closely follow France for everything that concerns the releases’ strategy and that does not leave us much margin for action” – states Michel de Schaetzen from O’Brother Distribution – “Belgium represents 5% of the francophone market so producers tend to see us like a bonus. On the other side we can also capitalize on the trend made in France.”

While some smaller Belgian distributors are forced to follow the French release date by contract with the international sale agents, the bigger companies in some cases refuse these deals. “In my opinion there are two very different cases: if we are buying a French film it is perfectly logical to follow their theatrical release and the subsequent windows. What I can’t accept is being asked to wait for France when buying non French films, especially when it comes to small European production for which the French release date is yet unknown and uncertain. This “French colonialism”   attitude has become an actual deal breaker for me” – told us Alexander Vandeputte, CEO of Lumière – “I fully support the hold back of physical media because they can travel but for the theatrical it does not make sense and the same goes for VOD which is geo-blocked anyway.”

When it comes to big releases on the other side, following France can be very convenient: “Even the audience tends to rely more on French press so we need to keep our release calendar very close to the French one. I don’t think this is a “problem”, it brings all the advantages and disadvantages of being associated with a bigger partner.” (Adeline Margueron)

While the bound of Belgium to France can be both a limit and something that can be capitalized on, all the distributors interviewed lament the small number of arthouse cinemas in the country.  For Christian Thomas of Imagine Film this creates a lack of diversity in the film offer: “The Belgian market is completely dominated by multiplexes where “popcorn cinema” is all you can find”. The same opinion was professed by Bruno Parent (Cinéart): “Belgium is the first country where Kinepolis started to work with big multiplexes. Over the last years the strength of multiplexes has been paired with the weakness of arthouse cinemas which are fewer and fewer. In Belgium compared to other markets we work with (Netherlands, France) it’s much harder to find cinema theaters for arthouse films”.  Alexander Vandeputte approached the problem from a different angle: “While cinema theaters in Holland managed to give an added social value to their venues thanks to their bars and “lounge feeling”, Belgian cinemas failed to match this acceleration and are not as performative as they could be”. Michel de Schaetzen on the other side thinks that the problem relies also in the lack of cross-over theaters: “The lack of cross-over theaters which screen both commercial and arthouse is a big issue because they can help greatly “smaller” films to meet a different kind of audience”.

Windows: Theatrical Vs. VOD

But what happens after theatrical release? Faced with the question of the flexibility of windows, many distributors expressed doubts and concerns about the proposal of creating a single digital market currently discussed by the European Commission. “The windows are still important to defend the territoriality. The project of a Digital Single Market is a great worry for us. DVDs can already cross borders but if the digital breaks the concept of territoriality that’s a disaster for us.” said Christian Thomas. Even sharper is the opinion of Alexander Vandeputte: “I don’t believe in the wisdom of the European Commission to regulate the film distribution market. The Commission seems to fail to understand that films are subject to precise cultural dynamics that change from country to country”.

Theatrical still holds an indisputable first place in the investments and income of Belgian independent distribution but the question of the future of theatrical compared to the other windows split the distributors interviewed. The majority expressed the belief that the theatrical will still hold an essential role in their distribution strategy and that it must be defended: “We are in a quite fragile financial situation and we need the windows to survive. Theaters are our only partners and we need to keep them strong because even if sometimes we make more money with the Pay TV, the theatrical is still what creates the value of the film. It’s the “event” the press talks about and when we sell the rights to TV they numbers are made on the basis of the theatrical success. We tried once for Kill me please to have simultaneous release in the cinemas and of free VOD, for 10.000 people thanks to an agreement with Belgacom. It was a disaster! We were counting on the word to mouth but the VOD viewers had not enjoyed the film so that was a boomerang and it completely killed the film. In general I never found yet a good experience with VOD releases.” (Michel de Schaetzen). “We are a small territory and I don’t believe in D&D in Belgium. This isn’t Texas where getting to the closest cinema takes an hour drive and people want to watch what is showing in the cinemas. The theatrical constitutes the locomotive of what is a really long train, it makes the film the “must see” event. Plus when you look at the figures on VOD it’s not really attracting” (Alexander Vandeputte). While agreeing on the importance of the theatrical, other distributors look with a more benevolent eye to VOD and blame cinemas for keeping a conservative attitude that damages the whole system: “Theatrical still represents generally at least 50% of our revenues but it’s also true that it absorbs 99% of the costs. We would like to work more with the VOD but we find both the theatres and the VOD platforms quite conservatives. Thanks to the digital, cinemas have access to more content (football, opera…) but they are not ready to share these benefits with us distributors, enhancing the VOD. VOD platforms on their side are not ready to take any risks with Arthouse films that have not yet been in theaters and it’s hard to launch Day&Date releases.” (Christian Thomas). Olivier Van den Broeck also outlined the benefits of working with VOD and more importantly of varying the sale and marketing strategies according to each film: “Being able to vary our strategy with windows depending on the films we are dealing with is an essential tool in our company. Belgium, compared to the Netherlands, has a more developed network of Pay TV and TV channels to whom we can sell the films after their theatrical release; this guarantees a “safety net” for smaller films. We have also developed a marketing very oriented on VoD but of course that does not work on all our titles. ”

Distribution is a tough job… Why do you do it and what do you dream of?

“I don’t know if this is really a difficult job, I have been doing this since day 1 of Lumière and now I just wish that the Commission would let us do our job and let the market regulate itself. That would be my dream for Belgian distribution” (Alexander Vandeputte). Without keeping in mind what films are, beside being economic products that can be sold and bought, it would be hard to understand what makes distributors become distributors, especially in arthouse cinema. Each of the people interviewed comes from different professional backgrounds and different personal stories led them into distribution. But when it comes to the reason why they are in this business, there is one thing they all seem to share: the desire to give access to films they believe in. “After each release I want to give up and quit. But then I discover yet another film that I want to bring to the audience and I am confident that the next one will be the one to make us reach. So it’s partially about gambling and partially about getting emotionally touched by a film that you want to show to other people. I think most distributors have a very touching memory of a film that he saw at a young age and we want to continue this transmission of an emotion that you saw and you want to share.” (Michel de Schaetzen). For his company Olivier Van den Broeck has a very concrete dream: “I would like Remain in Light to become the first to build a multi-platform for the BENELUX countries that would guarantee simultaneous releases.” For the majority of the distributors interviewed what they wish for their own company corresponds to what they wish for the whole Belgium territory: to have more art house cinemas. “If any town with over 50 thousand people had 1 small cinema theatre offering an alternative… that would be great” (Bruno Parent).


Portraits: get to know our members

 

Michel de Schaetzen – Head of Sales & Acquisitions – O’Brother Distribution

O’Brother Distribution’s line up: We distribute mainly Arthouse and our main focus is French and francophone coproduction, originally due to our connection to the production company Versus. We distribute an average of 10 film per year and 90% of them are French speaking. In average 6 out of 10 are produced or co-produced by Versus. Out main target audience is French speaking Belgium.

Adeline Margueron – Le Parc Distribution

Le Parc Distribution’s line up: Our line-up is mainly composed by animation films for children between 3 and 4 years old. As our main target audience is composed by toddlers, we often buy packages of several short films that are put together to create a programme. We also have animation films for kids between 10 and 12 years old and some feature films for teenagers. Our distribution company is strongly attached to the cultural association “Les Grignoux” which manages 3 arthouse cinema theaters in Liège so our connection with the territory is very strong. Besides animation and features for teens, we also have a small line-up of documentaries of social interest (such as “Tous au Larzac”) that we distribute in the framework of “permanent education” projects. These screenings always involve associations and trade unions interested in the documentaries’ topics who help us organizing after-screening debates. These kind of films are interesting for us because they bring people who would not usually go the cinema.

Adeline’s motivation: I do it because we have good movies and I want people to be able to have access to this offer. The satisfaction of knowing that we bring films to an audience who would not otherwise have access to them.

Bruno Parent – Cinéart

Cinéart’s line up: We try to keep an even balance between Arthouse and bigger commercial films, both are needed in a good line-up. Cinéart’s policy is to keep tight relationship with certain directors whose careers we have always followed such as Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti, Michael Haneke, Lucas Belvaux and Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne… we believe that fidelity pays off and that it’s important creating a direct link between directors and distributors.

Bruno’s motivation: Difficulties are part of the thrill. This is a business in constant change. Not only because of the number of different titles we are constantly asked to deal with, but also because people’s habits and their way to watch films is constantly changing. I am in marketing but I think that buying films is also really thrilling. It’s like being in a Casino. You know you are going to lose money but you enter anyway!

Christian Thomas – Imagine Film

Imagine Film’s line up: We distribute Arthouse films we believe in. We also do some cross-over but we find that genre movies and commercial cinema don’t really fit with us, they are not our cup of tea.

Christian’s motivation: I’ve always been in cinema. My father was a producer and I worked first as projectionist and then as Festival Director. When I was a Festival Director I used to hate distributors. They were the annoying part of my job, always telling me I couldn’t get films I wanted because they had different plans for their distribution in my territory. Then a producer, a friend of mine, asked me to distribute his film and this is how I started. If I could go back 20 years I think I would be more sympathetic to the distributors I was working with and I would also be a better Festival Director.

Olivier Van den Broeck – Remain in Light

Remain in Light’s line up: We traditionally have a strong arthouse DVD catalogue and lately we   added to it some entertainment titles. Over the last year however our lineup filled with different kind of titles. We are targeting a younger audience, not only because we see a strong potential in it, but also because we think it’s fundamental to ensure a future generation of film-goers. We are especially interested in English language films and auteur driven films with a genre twist.

Olivier’s motivation: I am very lucky to work with a young team and we are driven by the wish of making a difference for younger audience, to make them discover films they would have not seen otherwise.

Alexander Vandeputte – CEO Lumière

Lumiére’s line up: We are a BENELUX acquisition company mainly focused on “smart art house” titles with a potential to a wider audience. My personal motto is to never underestimate your audience and at Lumiére we try to transform this idea in a successful business model. Besides theatrical and home video distribution of feature films we also buy rights for TV series and distribute films from our production company Lunanime.

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