by Birgit Heidsiek
Due to the impact of the digitization, cinema is not anymore the cinema as we knew it – this is not only true in terms of technique but also in regards to the choice of content, the concept of programming, the exploitation potential of a film as well as the business model. The only certainty which independent distributors have is that the future of art house cinema is uncertain. Thousands of films that are flooding the movie theatres and blocking the screens, an overaging audience, piracy and the changing media consumption are part of the problem. The dramatic downfall of sales to the TVs, the drop of DVD sales and the impact of piracy on the circulation of their films make it crucial for independent distributors to find new, alternative ways of releasing – especially when the traditional channels seem no longer available.
There is a common consent in the industry that new business models are needed urgently. Although the film distribution via DVD is still working well, it is just a question of time when the consumers will completely switch to online consumption. Meanwhile there are over 800 online film portals in Europe where films can be downloaded in a legal way. Even though there are more or less powerful attempts to stop piracy, the amounts which are generated today via legal VOD have difficulties to replace the lost revenues of the classic home entertainment business. It is out of the question that the trend goes to online distribution. But it is highly controversial which will be the best approach.
Driven by the fear of damage by piracy and the strong belief that the consumers want anything anywhere immediately, the day-and-date release is often seen as the perfect solution. But this model implicates to break the old windows so that the cinema is going to lose its established exclusive position as the engine of the distribution chain. Exhibitors but also various independent distributors are convinced that the value of the theatrical distribution will diminish when the windows are dismissed. Other industry members see the day-and-date release as a chance to reach a wider audience for a film which is released simultaneously on several platforms.
For this reason, the European Parliament and the European Commission launched a 2 million euro experiment with the simultaneous multi-platform releases of European films. The EU supported simultaneous multi-platform releases of nine films in 15 territories and fully covered the p&a costs of the 4 films released within The TIDE Experiment. The three groups EDAD, SPEED BUNCH and TIDE participated in this experiment which was launched in the context of the preparatory action “Circulation of Europeans films in the digital era”. At the Cannes film festival, the European Parliament and the European Commission presented an analysis of their experiments which are leading to divisive discussions in the industry.
Xavier Troussard, Head of Unit Creative Europe – Media Programme, opened the discussion with the question “what can be learned from those experiments?”. In view of the upcoming start of VOD platforms such as Netflix in several European countries, there is a consent in the industry that these new players will change the distribution market. However there are opposing opinions on how the Europeans should deal with the new challenges.
Philip Knatchbull, CEO of Curzon Film World, who participated in this preparatory action, releases as many films as possible per day-and-date release. „Certain films deserve a smaller window. The key is a way to maintain flexibility and to keep control. We have to give the customers what they want when they want.“ From his point of view it is protectionism if the law doesn‘t allow to release films day-and-date. „It should be up to the distributors how they generate revenues in the different channels for their own individual films“, underlines Knatchbull.
„It is a broken model for distributors at the moment“, argues the CEO of Curzon Film World. „Exhibitors make money.“ The distributor has to access the digital projectors and has to pay a fee. But in the UK, he doesn‘t know if his film will be on the screens until three days before the film is actually booked although he committed his marketing money. And if a film doesn‘t perform in three days, it will be off. „When I get day-and-date on a digital platfom as distributor I am keeping 60 to 70 percent of the income.“
„This model might be perfect for the UK but in another country the same or another model can work“, retorts Raymond Walravens, Director of Rialto Cinema in Amsterdam. „This is all about the idea of an open market and non-national films are travelling towards Europe which is sort of a dogma. I agree that there should be an open market but if you want to change the model of the whole film chain, are we gonna close all territories?“, asks the exhibitor. „The day-and-date release might also kill cinemas which make money.“
„There is no business model for day-and-date“, states Nico Simon, CEO of Utopia Group of Cinemas and President of Europa Cinemas who criticises that the exhibitors were not involved in the preparatory action. „The release of nine films in 15 countries generated only about 15,000 admissions. One film had not more than a total of 27 cinemagoers“, emphasizes Thorsten Frehse who spoke for the independent distributors in Germany. „I hope this experiment won‘t be the basis for any political future decisions. This is the wrong way.“
The distributor is worried that companies such as Netlflix will be the winners if the windows are going to break. „We are only talking about S-VOD which means Netflix for which people pay only 6 Euros per months. We will have revenues of only 20 cents when the people are watching our movie because they are also watching TV series and sports.“
„The films can‘t be refinanced if the revenue numbers are marginal like this“, adds Jan Runge, spokesman of the European exhibitors association UNIC – the International Union of Cinemas. “The Commission should trust the industry where and when to release films.”
„People don‘t have time to wait hundred days after a movie was released theatrically. They want to watch a movie right away, they cannot wait“, points out Gianluca Guzzo, CEO of MYMovies.it.„The competitors are not theatrical, VOD or other devices. The competitors are music and restaurants. Therefore we are trying to create a cinema in the home entertainment environment.” Thierry Lounas who represents the Syndicat des Distributeurs Independants in France, is optimistic to give films a new form of life: „We have to find an economic model.“
In terms of the economic model, Tim Richards, CEO of Vue Cinemas, doesn‘t look at this in black and white. „I look at it with shades of grey“, states the head of the European cinema chain which runs 150 sites in eight European markets. „The concern some of the larger commercial operators like us have is we want to to have a lot more flexible windows. The problem we have is, there are certain films that deserve a shorter window“, Tim Richards underlines with regards to smaller films with smaller p&a budgets. „If we reduce the windows, it will affect the attendance in cinemas. The key that everybody tries to find is a way to maintain flexibility and yet still to maintain control.“
A lot of commercial operators are spending huge amounts of money investing in existing cinemas to make them exciting, dynamic and relevant in the digital age. „We need a return of investment for our business. We need to be in control what we are showing on our screens. We can‘t have others tell us that our business model is broken“, emphasizes the CEO of Curzon Cinemas. „We don‘t think it is.“
„We discuss too much about technique, we should talk more about content“, states Detlef Rossmann, President of the International Confederation of Art Cinemas (CICAE). „The exhibitors don‘t want to have films treated as pure products which are distributed on the web. Film is a cultural product which can be much better seen on a big screen. This is a social function which isn‘t offered by the web.“
The movie theatres which are gathered in organizations such as Europa Cinemas and CICAE are working hard to get this kind of awareness, explains Christian Bräuer, Chairman of the independent German exhibitors association AG Kino. “We are showing more than 500 films a year. We are fighting for small titles.“ According to him, the key question should be why European movies don‘t succeed on video-on-demand. „There is a concentration on Netflix, iTunes, etc. What can the movie theatres do so that European films will succeed in our cinemas, also in an economic way“, wonders the exhibitor. „Do we have a chance at all to create an awareness for European films on VOD?“
„If we look at the results of the very limited pilots, it shows that there is no real market for non-domestic European films in the way the Commission would like that to be“, sums up Phil Clapp, President of the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC). „The numbers we are talking about – even combined cinema and VOD results – are tiny numbers. These are not numbers which are going to make any kind of impact.”
„We want diversity. But we also want sustainability of the creative process in the cinema sector. We want to have an economic model that allows the sustainability“, concludes Xavier Troussard. „We have to start to see that there are different ways to handle the career of a film in terms of timing of the release in the territories and in terms of windows. That could create some new opportunities. We have to continue the experiments but also we have to continue the debate with the European Film Forum.“
Meanwhile, the independent exhibitors and distributors are still arguing about which approaches might be taken, the bigger market players want to control the market as far as they can and are already working on their own preparatory action. „The future is VOD with cinemas“, states Tim Richards, CEO of Vue Cinemas, who sees as an exhibitor a potential in the vertical integration in the industry. „Our website has the infrastructure for VOD“, underlines the CEO of Vue Cinemas which is working on their own platform. „We want to be flexible on a managed controlled face. I see a future for niche films.“
In any way, it remains uncertain how a single independent film can be (re-)financed in an ecosystem which is shaped by overproduction. And how will the consumer find this single movie in a vast environment of films and platforms.