European Distribution: Focus on the Netherlands

by Claire La Combe

Whenever the film market of the Netherlands is mentioned, it is very often associated with its neighbour Belgium, as part of the “2nd rank markets” – those who fully participate in the general trend of the EU film Market, without being a dramatic player. Indeed, in terms of trends, it gently follows the global EU market’s ones: number of admissions has remained over the past years almost perfectly stable (around 30 million per year); more national films are produced and more and more films are screened per week. Like its neighbours, the digital screen penetration reached 100% in 2014.

One could say the Dutch film market probably has reached a “post-digital step”: an increasing offer as it is much easier to produce, to buy and to show films; parallel to a zero income and admission growth. Precisely at that moment, it seems quite appropriate to focus on the territory‘s singularities such as a dense art house network and a large piracy issue. Discussing with a few Dutch Europa Distribution members on present and future of their daily activity, and listening to their hopes of more collaboration between national film stakeholders, it might be possible to find some leads to maintain the EU film market’s diversity.

Buy BENELUX, release national                                                                                                                                          

In terms of rights and market, the Netherlands usually comes with its two neighbours: Luxembourg and Belgium. Together they form the BENELUX market which represents more than 1270 screens split in two languages (Dutch & French). Among all three, the Netherlands represent more than 50 % of the admissions and has two thirds of the screens. Though, due to the strategic position of Belgium, in between the Dutch and the French cultures, the latter generally takes the lead on sales.

A large part of the Dutch distribution companies are sister branches of a Belgium-based house and have a collective strategy in the company. Other Dutch houses have regular Belgian partners to whom they sell part of their rights or the other way around. In all cases, the Belgian-Dutch rights collaboration seems to work well: it enables savings in terms of production costs (if any), contract management and promotion material, when on the other hand, each national-based company keeps the independence of setting up a local release strategy.

Yet, this release independence is often biased… “France is very close, so Belgium doesn’t want to wait too long before a release, and it has an impact on the Dutch release calendar…We had an example with ALLELUIA (dir.Fabrice Du Welz) when we had to negotiate because the DVD release date was already announced in the Benelux. In the end, postponing the date was a win-win situation” (Rene Wolf, Eye Film)

Every local market has its specificities – every distributor would confirm that – and the Dutch territory is no exemption, this is why the way of splitting the rights management and the release strategy is widely accepted in BENELUX. “The Dutch market is composed with many local movies, and people are more attracted by English speaking films as well” underlined Olivier Mortagne (Paradiso Films) while comparing Belgian and Dutch markets.

 

Independent and arty the Dutch?

Belgium and the Netherlands are very often associated and compared. However, every distributor seems to agree with the fact that the Dutch territory has one advantage: “of not being stuck to the French market” (Huub Roelvink, Imagine Film). French art-house films are usually bigger successes in the Netherlands because the audience is not subjective to a specific French image. For Imagine Film, MY OLD LADY (dir. Ilmar Raag) is a good example of how Belgian and Dutch markets can be different, and represents the typical kind of film which works in the Netherlands. The film was a big success in the Netherlands but didn’t do that well in Belgium. “It had a turist approach of Paris, I think the French speaking audience wasn’t really keen on that” analyses Huub Roevlink

In fact, the Dutch audience is reputed for being more attracted by art-house films than their neighbours. This is why more than 80% of the income of Dutch distributors still come from theatrical releases, and why they all still focus on cinemas. “Dutch people have their eyes out, they plan to go to theatre, with a specific film. There is a great importance of the word of mouth” analyses Olivier Mortagne.

There is something cultural…with an audience perfectly used to original version movie screenings, so streamed with local productions that whenever an international work would come out, they would be more curious about it. But there is also something due to the structure. As Gerard Huisman (Contact Film) examines, “there is a nice structure of arthouse theatres, which is very unique thanks to the Rotterdam Film Festival”.  The Nederlands Filmfonds (NFF) and the Nederlandse Vereniging van Filmdistributeurs (NVF), association of film distributors, are connected with the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) and together they have helped improving the theatre network in the country. “40 years ago only American and big EU films were screened” developed René Wolf. Not only independent films are well supported in the country, but also service theatres (combination of coffee shop, bookshop etc.) have developed thanks to local financing. These cinemas, with cautious programming, have an impact on the movie goers. Oliver Mortagne confirms: “Holland was able to bring people back in the theatres that know their audience”.

But things might be changing again. “The audience is getting old…Youngsters don’t really care about theatres” concluded Gerard Huisman on the chapter. Hence the stagnation – not to say the light drop – on admissions in 2014. New trends are coming and distributors have to adapt.

 

The internet: not yet a panacea

Digitization has changed a lot the industry – not a scoop. But in a small territory such as the Netherlands, with a strong libertarian heritage, malfunctions may happen even faster. Piracy is barely illegal, VOD brings little economic returns and theatres are very often reluctant to Day & Date experiments. Seems that the Dutch distributors are pushed in the middle of the fence.

“Pop Corn Time is huge in the Netherlands. It is not illegal!” says Jean Heijl (JustFilm). Part of this could be explained by political traditions, as the one exposed by Huub Roelvink: “Internet freedom is something defended by the Lib Dem, which is big in the country. It’s a mentality thing. The Dutch society is very individualistic. Meanwhile, the government is not active at all to fight against this”.  Today, distributors are fighting within the BREIN foundation “to try to tackle piracy and make the government react” comments Jean Heijl.

Meanwhile, the legal offer on VOD platforms stays very shy. “Our biggest income is theatrical. DVD and VOD incomes are decreasing rapidly. We need to recoup with something else” admits Carlo Dias (Amstel Film). The distributor took part in the Tide Experiment of the European Commission MEDIA Programme in 2013, and he still concedes today that “it is very hard to go digital for Art House films”.

Indeed, as all the ED members interviewed acknowledges: “Day and Date is not for all movies”. But according to Anne van der Pol (Cineart), there are other reasons inherent to the country… First reason shared among distributors interviewed: Dutch exhibitors are reluctant to it. “They say they lose audience. On our film LOST RIVER”, explains Anne van der Pol, “they didn’t collaborate very well and weren’t very strict about windows…” Second difficulty then, the windows which are too strict. “We could take the example of the UK, where Day and Date releases can be as expensive in theatres as on the web. There are lots of possibilities, with bigger marketing campaigns online for example”. For her parts, Anne van der Pol believes that art-house films are precisely more flexible for such new options.

Last but not least, in parallel to the online shift to deal with, digitization changed the traditional distribution circuit. “The Netherlands are quite small and well connected, but digitization made the distribution costs even less. Now, if you make over seven prints it is cost efficient” explains Gerard Huisman. Virtual copies replaced hard copies, and they are much cheaper to produce. Still, the Virtual Print Fee (VPF) system enables to maintain a certain reasonable level as it is not “free” to screen films: distributors have to pay a certain amount per copies to help theatres to get digital equipment. But now that the digitization of screens is complete, the VPF should have no reason to go on. “In two years or so, when the equipment will be paid, it would be a challenge, some films could go up to 200 copies!” worries Carlo Dias.

 

Too many copies, too many films, too many distributors

In fact, the risk to screen a film is already much lower with the actual VPF system. As in the past years with hard copies, number of copies varies regarding the genre of the film and the success expected. But there is a general complain that raises among the Dutch Art House distribution companies: some films are now distributed on too many copies, over sixty, and it is not always justified by the audience. For Jean Heijl, the print strategy has to remain proportionate with digital: “we would go for a hundred prints if the film is commercial; from twenty five to forty prints if we plan an arthouse success; from five to ten if it’s a small film. We try not to use too many screens”.

“Too many copies for one film push competition out of theatres!” Gerard Huisman protests. “More and more films are coming out, around four hundreds were released in the Netherlands in 2014. Films stay less and less on screen…Whereas some films need time! Today you’re lucky if your film goes up to the 4th week. We know that some films, with the word of mouth, need sometimes the 6th week to be a success…But too many films are waiting in the line! We have to bargain with theatres to have more screenings planned.”

And this vision is shared even by big arthouse players such as Cineart. “It is very crowded, every week five to six films are released, it is difficult to find a good place” recognizes as well Anne van der Pol. Though, for her, the number of prints is not necessarily a reason forthe absence of space in theatres. “It’s a combination between the fact that there are too many films and the fact that there are too many films bought” she adds. “Some movies are not worth to buy!” comments Olivier Mortagne. “Don’t buy too many films. Know your own product. Decide not to release it” advises Jean Heijl.

“Slow starters” have very few chances to survive in the actual release Dutch calendar and there is a real threat of seeing diversity of films disappearing from the screens. As EYE is also an exhibitor, Rene Wolf is well placed to testify: “finding a date is a problem. Today I’m fully booked. I have no room for any extra film in 2015. When we know that two or three weeks are necessary to find an audience…The statement is tough. And yet, in the Eye institute it is possible to have such an exposure, in other places it’s almost impossible to stay that long.”

And when Huub Roelvink wishes “less competition”, he says out loud what his fellow distributors’ wish too…Pious hope of course, but that can lead to concrete options to maintain the film market sustainable.

 

Hope & Worry: more cooperation among the audiovisual industry

One of the issue, according to Rene Wolf is that “lot of distributors are looking for the same films, have the same strategy and the same goals. They compete each other like hell. There would be less distributors in near future…or there is a need of more cooperation between them”. That is one way. At the image of cooperation between Belgian and Dutch companies, distributors on a same territory should be able to share info and have a more accurate strategy.

The role of cinemas is crucial too. Regarding the number of prints in the digital environment, “exhibitors should be responsible and say in advance that sometimes there is no audience that big for a specific film” suggests Jean Heilj. On the other hand, Anne van der Polwould love to see cinemas with a chosen programme, targeting a specific community”, “to see a better collaboration with distributors” she concludes.

Moreover, TVs have their role to play in maintaining the diversity of films on screens. In the Netherlands, there are very few Pay TV and TV operators are accused not to be involved enough in creation. “TVs stopped buying six years ago…They only buy “packages”, something an independent can’t provide. We promote one by one our films” explains Gerard Huisman. “My dream is the TV stations to buy more of our films and not only big titles” wishes in the end Huub Roelvink.

And what if cooperation in the audiovisual sector fails…One could be pessimistic “In the long term, diversity of cinema will be gone” (Gerard Huisman)…Or optimistic “There are still beautiful films, which the press likes, which we want to show to an audience. We need to bring films on all fronts, with all companies like Netflix. I am very curious of what’s happening next!” (Anne van der Pol)…Or simply in the twilight zone “when I see new large successes with LES COMBATTANTS or OF HORSES & MEN, I have a mixed feeling: both hope and worry for future” (Carlo Dias) As long as distributors would share ideas and feelings, let’s say there is hope.

 

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Get to know our members

Cinéart

Cineart Nederland is a sister company of Cineart Belgium. It was created eight years ago. Before that, Cineart Belgium had partnerships with Dutch companies such as A-Film. In the Dutch office, they started with three people in 2007 and grew up to ten people today. They work closely as one company between the two companies: the two acquisition teams travel together in festivals and make decisions for the whole BENELUX territory. Release choice is separate from a territory to another but there is only one material coordinator based in Belgium.

Line up: they focus on “quality films”, small, medium and large, but they also buy smaller films and new talents. Some example of this combination slate: Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle), Lord of The Rings (dir. Peter Jackson), The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard), the Hanneke’s or Dardenne’s. Teir core clients are art-house cinemas (around 30) and Pathé. They release from 25 to 30 films per year in the Netherlands, more or less two per month. The average number of prints for their films goes from 10 to 20 copies.

Last releases: AMY (dir. Asif Kapadia) – 60 prints; LOVE (dir. Gaspard Noe) – 10 prints.

Imagine Film

Imagine Film Netherlands is the Dutch branch of Imagine Film Belgium and was created in 2012. The company, as a whole, always buy Benelux rights and set up a collective strategy and share the material, but the contract is always made by the Belgian branch.

Line up: the company’s credo is “quality”. “We think quality can be found at many levels, our slate is a matter of feeling, we chose films we think we can bring to an audience” (Huub Roevlink). Sometimes it leads the company to be quite adventurous with films such as the Icelandic Hrutar (dir. Grimur Hakonarson), a film they bought before Cannes.

Contact Film

Contact film has been set up in 1991 as a Foundation with no lucrative goal. One of the reason they are based in Arnhem is that things are easier and cheaper than in Amsterdam.

Line up: the company is “devoted to cinema”. They want to bring films by authors “who contribute to cinema” to the audience. They never buy English spoken films.

Last release: VALLEY OF LOVE (dir. Guillaume Nicloux) – 15 copies

Justfilm

JustFilm always buy Benelux rights, even if they don’t have any branch in Belgium. They have regular partners in Belgium to whom they leave the release strategy, such as Kinepolis, Lumière or Paradiso.

Line up: “a big mix”. They distribute local Dutch films (commercial), children products from Europe and Russia, German kid films and arthouse films (4 to 5 a year). They also buy documentaries from time to time. They release between 12 to 15 films per year and distribute them on 5 prints and up to 100 prints according to the genre.

Next release: UNDERDOG (dir. Ronnie Sandahl) – 5 to 8 prints.

Amstelfilm

Amstelfilm tries to buy Benelux rights as much as possible. Based in Amsterdam, they don’t have any branch in Belgium so they deal with regular partners such as O’Brother Distribution. They also work as a service distributor on the Dutch territory. They usually share production costs with the other Benelux distributors involved in a film.

Line up: the company distribute different types of films, from the art house to Dutch supported films, passing by bigger European films. They see in more commercial titles a way to balance their line-up. They release between 12 to 15 films per year.

Last release: REALITY (dir. Quentin Dupieux) // Next release : 600 MILES (dir. Gabriel Ripstein)

EYE Film

EYE is a merge of different companies. Back in 2010, it was born thanks to the merge of the Film Museum with the Dutch Institute and Holland Film Meeting. In the past, Eye Film use to get only classics and Dutch experimental films. In the 80s, they started to buy international films but the change in subsidy’s guidelines made them limiting releases of foreign arthouse movies.

Line up: they mainly buy films for archives, Dutch films and classics (four per year). Their goal is both to build up a great archival collection but also to bring up to screens new talents. In consequence, they usually buy rights only for the Netherlands.

Paradiso Films

Paradiso is a Belgian company who opened an Amsterdam office at the end of the 90s. They make a lot of pre-buys and always get Benelux rights.

Line-up: crossover films. From arthouse to mainstream movies such as LES VISITEURS 3, passing by Dutch directors’.

Recent acquisition: THE CIRCLE, based on the bestseller book by Dave Eggers.

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